All posts by NerdyVet

Small animal vet, author, technology enthusiast and entrepreneur. I have a passion for the power of technology to amaze, educate and enrich our lives, including those of the animals we share this world with.

Dubai 30×30 Sheikh Zayed Road Run

“Say what now?! Dubai are planning to close down part of the main E11 highway, the Sheikh Zayed Road, and let people run along it. For free?! Sign me up!”

Like thousands and thousands of others the very notion of being able to experience what it would be like to run down the middle of a mega-highway completely devoid of traffic and to experience the view of Dubai that greets those hurtling along it’s main artery and that has been immortalised on screen countless times was too much to turn down. I’ve run my fair share of organised races and so am happy to fork out some cash for the chance to take my place on the starting line. It is rare, however, to get to take part in an event of the magnitude of the Dubai 30×30 Sheikh Zayed Road run and to be able to do so for gratis. The upside to the decision to levy no entry charge to runners was that people turned out in droves for the event, with every facet of the city’s population represented and not just those affluent enough to be able to throw down a couple of hundred dirhams to spend their morning off running. This was a master stroke as it gave the entire event a real sense of togetherness that made it all the more memorable.

It seems that thought had really gone into the logistics of the event as well, from having multiple pickup points for race numbers the day before to ample transport options, including opening up the metro super early to allow runners to avoid adding to traffic and to access to event from across the city. I took advantage of the fact that the Mall of the Emirates was opened up, allowing parking and metro access, which made the whole morning sooooooo much less stressful than it might otherwise have been.

Arriving at the Trade Centre by metro I will confess that I was initially a little anxious when I saw just how many people were present. However, with the crowds in jubilant mood and everyone being respectful of others the slow shuffle to leave the station just added to the sense of grand occasion that we were all part of. There was a real air of excitement, with the weather and conditions just perfect, and as I joined the swell of runners lining up for the 10km race – separate start and finish to the 5km, which was another smart decision – I was glad I brought out the 360-degree camera to record the event.

Whilst it was never going to be my fastest 10km run, on account of the sheer number of people out on the course and the desire to stop at a few points to record some memories, the final 5km that took us past the Dubai Mall and then towards the finish at the Trade Centre had enough gaps open that I was able to really find a fun rhythm and pace to feel as though I was getting a solid run in. In fact, it was really a lot of fun getting to weave in and out of people, imagining that I was driving my very own Lambourghini along the boulevard – simple things!

All told, this was a great event and I can definitely see it becoming an annual fixture on the Dubai calendar. Well done Dubai.

Centurion North Downs Way 100 – RACE REPORT 2019

You Ran How Far?!

“That’s insane!” The usual, and to be honest, pretty fair response that most people offer when they learn of the fact that I recently completed a 100 mile race – well, actually 103 miles if we’re going to be specific and truth be told those extra three miles really did feel significant at the time. The race in question was the 2019 Centurion North Downs Way 100 and takes athletes from the start line in the affluent market town of Farnham, Surrey along the North Downs Way, a national trail that traverses the stunning countryside of the Surrey hills before hooking a right and heading south into the garden county of Kent, ultimately crossing the finish line in the town of Ashford.

Why Run So Far?

I’d entered this race for a number of reasons some eight months or so prior, with the primary ones being that a) I wanted to do a race in the UK, especially given that I was long overdue a visit back home to see the family, and b) it just looked like a thoroughly picturesque route and a very well organised and run event. The fact it was 103 miles, or 168km, in length seemed like more of a technicality at the time, although the full magnitude of that fact soon became apparent once I was actually taking part. The longest race I had, up to that point, competed in was a 50-miler, or 80km, trail ultra in Whistler, Canada back in Autumn of 2018, so whilst I felt motivated to seek a new challenge I was also acutely mindful of just how big a step-up this was going to be. I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions that I didn’t fully respect, and indeed fear, the distance I was contemplating trying to complete: I was well aware of the magnitude of the challenge and was very mindful of the distinct possibility that I might, even after all of my training and preparation, still not make it to the finish line. My earlier attempt to run 101km at the 2018 Eiger race saw me admit defeat and call it a day at the halfway point so the prospect of going more than twice my previous distance record was a hugely intimidating, but also weirdly exciting, prospect. The biggest concern wasn’t whether I would be physically fit enough – I felt that with all of the endurance training I had done over the years I should, even if not necessarily very fast, be able to make it to the finish line – but rather the mental aspect of such a big undertaking. I had no idea whether or not I had the strength of mind to be able to push through extreme fatigue, doubt, physical pain and the calls to “just quit” that I knew for a fact can and do populate an endurance athlete’s thoughts when the going really gets tough. Could I stand up to such temptation and silence the doubts in my own mind? I really didn’t know until I tried.

One of the main challenges of training for such a long running event when based in Dubai and working a busy, full-time professional job – one that can be equal parts physically and mentally draining – is the fact that I just don’t have the kind of time to devote to super long run sessions as I would like and even if I did this part of the world becomes pretty hostile during the hotter, summer months. Whilst it is feasible to get outside and put in entire day efforts over the winter months, being done with outside training by 8am during the summer is imperative. It just gets way too hot and humid for long sessions to be anything other than dangerous and there are only so many nocturnal run sessions that anyone can commit to before going a little batty, especially when it can still be 35 degrees Celsius and feel like a steam room even in the absence of the sun! With the race scheduled to take place on the first weekend of August, most of the big training efforts needed to take place during these hot, humid months, with the longest continuous run I was able to do being in the region of 5.5 hours, a mere fraction of the time I was expecting to be out on course during the actual event. As such, I knew going into the North Downs Way 100 that there was a large amount of ‘see what happens on the day’ governing how things panned out, not something that is all too comforting for someone who prefers to be very planned and prepared in most pursuits.

 

Control What You Can & Accept What You Cannot

All I could do was focus on preparing and fine tuning what I did have control over. This included my choice of kit for the day and nutrition, the latter having always been a bit of an Achilles heel. Having tried out a couple of different hydration packs/ run vests I ultimately invested in the somewhat pricey but very well designed Salomon Advanced Skin 5. This vest looks and feels very minimal but therein lies it’s genius: it hugs the body like a second skin, completely eliminating much of the independent jiggling, shifting and, ultimately, rubbing that other packs seemed to lead to. Over 30km these sorts of issues are minor annoyances but when stretched out over 168km any erroneous movement could lead to some serious chafing and discomfort, definitely to be avoided where possible. Whilst I had always been a hydration bladder user I ultimately opted to rely on the Salomon soft flasks for the race, with each carrying up to 500mls of fluid and so meeting the race minimum requirement for a minimum carry of 1L. As it turned out this was more than adequate, with well-supplied aid stations on average every 15km and a very favourable set of race day conditions meaning that I very rarely arrived with empty flasks anyway. The advantage of not carrying a bladder was that it neatly freed up the vest’s back capacity for carrying my essential kit and meant that filling up on liquids was as easy as simply handing my flasks to the volunteers on the stations. Combined with the extension ‘straws’ that I purchased just before race day, I was able to keep my fluid intake adequate without any hassle on the day.

Another key kit decision was to go with my trusty Salomon Speedcross 4 trail shoes, which had served me very well on the rocky trails of the UAE, the mountain tracks of Georgia and the mixed terrain of Whistler. Realising that my current pair were perhaps getting on a tad and certainly not wanting to be in the avoidable position of having them fail during the actual race, I managed to track down another pair to purchase in the UK and so had them ready to use during the race. As it turned out I did in fact opt to swap into them at the halfway point after my older pair felt like they were starting to pinch. One of the lessons I learnt from this race was certainly to value the reassuring presence of spares – even if they don’t get used, simply knowing that you have spares of any key kit items goes a long way to allaying some of the anxieties that can accompany such a long race. What better to pair with my Salomons than the good old, trusty blister-preventing wonders that are Injinji socks. I swear that they are probably one of the THE most life-changing inventions for any trail, and certainly ultra, runner there is. Whilst I did develop a little blister on my right foot – from the pinching of my shoes incidentally – the remaining pedal surface area on both feet remained sanctified. Not a single blister was to be found on any toe, which after that kind of crazy distance covered is amazing! I am, and have long been, a devoted convert to the Church of Injinji. In fact, you could say I have become like many, a vocal missionary for the brand. Knowing that some – actually, quite a lot as it turned out – of the trail was overgrown and that nettles and thorns were likely to feature, I invested in a couple of pairs of longer, trail socks in preference to my usual ankle variety, with this proving to be a smart move. Whilst my legs were trashed by the end of the race in terms of being just utterly fatigued, I avoided anything in the way of even mild cuts, scratches or even stings, which actually surprised me. Either I lost feeling in my distal limbs towards the end of the race or the socks actually protected me well from the worst of any vegetative assault.

When it came to my choice for what to wear in terms of shorts or T-shirt on the day this became an easy decision: my somewhat recently discovered Lululemon running shorts and T-shirts, the former being delightfully lightweight yet durable and comfortable and the latter being superbly wicking, in no way chafe-prone and with the very agreeable quality of avoiding any unpleasant odours developing, which isn’t always the case with other shirts I’ve run in. The shorts I used lasted the entire duration of the race whilst I swapped out both my shoes, socks and T-shirt at the halfway, or 80km station, at Knockholt.

In terms of nutrition, much as Injinji socks were a welcome revelation, so too was Tailwind when I first came across it. Having relied very much on gels back in my triathlon days, I found that being able to combine tolerable nutrition and fluid intake through the use of Tailwind was much more agreeable to my system and it was this that served the bulk of my fuelling needs throughout the race, supplemented along the way with a mixed assortment of jelly sweets, cookies, savoury snacks, such as mini sausage rolls and jam sandwiches, some wonderful, delicious pasta at the halfway point, and, in the latter stages, the Godsend that was hot, sweet tea! How the latter kept me going! Remarkably, I had just one, very brief episode of feeling nauseous throughout the entire race, after I’d stuck my head down for 30 mins of rest at the 120km mark, with this thankfully passing once I’d warmed up and taken in some sweet tea. I never actually succumbed to physical illness, unlike a number of other runners who I witnessed chucking up during the run. For that I was very grateful and feel that whilst there is always room for improvement I did, on the whole, manage to get my nutrition fairly correct on the day.

 

Pre-Race Day

In an ideal world we would all get to arrive at the location of our races at least a week in advance, providing time to settle, scope out and run some of the course itself and, just generally, gradually ease into the race frame of mind. A less than ideal lead up would be to come off a taxing week of night shifts, a flight home and a tiring, but obviously wonderful, day of entertaining nieces and a nephew. Still, we work with what we got and at least my mum, dad and I were able to get into Farnham a good day and a half before race day, meaning that I had time to register smoothly and sort out my kit in advance, including the two drop bags that we were permitted in this race. It also allowed time to catch up with some friends – a welcome distraction from the pre-race nerves that I was definitely feeling – and my sister, her other half and their youngest, with my sister cracking me up when it transpired that she thought they’d come down to watch me take part in a short triathlon and not the full-day beast that is a 100 mile ultra! This certainly amused everyone present and meant that far from getting to ‘support me’ on the day, I didn’t actually see them again after we grabbed dinner together on the Friday evening.

One of the key things I spent time doing the day before the race was to meticulously portion up my supply of Tailwind for the race, divvying it up into individually labelled plastic baggies of white powder. The visuals on this were, I confess, dubious, and if anyone who lacked knowledge of what I was preparing for had looked through the window they could have been forgiven for thinking I was getting down to some Walter White shenanigans. In the end much of this was unnecessary as the race, being sponsored by, among others, Tailwind, actually provided the stuff at the aid stations, although I’m glad I took some with me as I suspect what was on offer was actually more dilute than I was used to. A lot of what I had in my drop bags didn’t actually get used in the end but, once again, as with having spare bits of kit, it is reassuring having the option of certain things and to not use them than to wish they were present.

One thing that is never really easy to do before a big race is adequately rest – I don’t think anyone manages to hit the sweet spot in this regard, and this includes getting a decent amount of sleep. There is just too much in the way of nervous energy at play, both from worrying that you might not wake up in time to being concerned that you could be forgetting some important piece of kit or race-essential knowledge, right through to just, well, being excitedly anxious. And so it was that I retired to bed at a pretty late hour, having reminded myself at the last minute of exactly how to activate the ‘route’ function on my Garmin and ensuring that both my GoPro and the aforementioned GPS were charged up and ready to go. I guess I must have gotten some sleep because before I knew it, race day had arrived!

Race Day – well, a little longer than a day!

Well, this was it! The culmination of 8 months of training and preparation was to come down to this one day. Was I up to the challenge? Only one way to find out…

Mum and dad were superb support the entire duration of the race and whilst it was never my initial intention for them to crew me – they are 70 years old, after all – that is exactly what ended up happening. They’re legends and they were ultimately instrumental in me making it to the finish line, for which I am extremely grateful. They rose at 4.30am alongside me, walked down to the start with all of the nervous athletes and were on hand at key stages of the race to keep me motivated, supplied and focused on the end goal.

The forecast for the day looked to be about as perfect as anyone could have asked for, with a general layer of cloud, interspersed with sunny spells, a welcome change from the stifling heat of the year before and certainly preferable to relentless rain, that would have made the going muddy and slippery and the general mood sombre. As such, I felt in good spirits as I lined up by the sign for the North Downs Way for the first of the few official photo ops of the day before shuffling into the crowd of a little over 300 runners, some looking way more anxious than me, at the start. Without too much in the way of fanfare we were off and thus began the 168km of UK countryside that stood between me and that finish line in Ashford, Kent.

My somewhat hastily scribbled together race ‘plan’ had split it into the distances between each aid station, a welcome way to ‘chunk’ the race and tackle it as a series of shorter sections. This was way easier to contemplate mentally compared to the feeling of overwhelming dread that came with pondering the true scale of what it means to traverse nearly 170km! I was, however, way off the mark with my projected times and pacing, which would soon become apparent. Whilst I was able to stick to my plan for the initial 40-or-so kilometres, I should have realised that sustaining such a fast pace over the entire duration of the race, especially given some of the beastly climbs that it included, was just pure fantasy. My initial projected finish time was about 18 hours, which would have seen me cross the line in Ashford at about 10.30pm that night, although I had always said that my goal for the race was 24 hours or less, which given my prediction seemed very achievable. As I say, I was on target for this in the initial third of the race and was sitting in the top 50 by the 50km mark.

Race Anatomy

There are generally three parts to a long race like this: the initial third, which is usually pretty fun as you tend to feel energised, get into a good rhythm and are not yet fatigued; the second third, which is usually the one that really sucks; and then the end, which whilst usually being uncomfortable is okay because, well, it’s the end so what’s a little more suffering when you’re so close to the finish line? The middle section is the really tough part as the move from “yay, this is awesome” to “hmm, this is starting to hurt/suck” becomes established. Whilst everything I read seemed to suggest that Box Hill, at the 40km mark, was the ‘monster climb’ of the day, in hindsight it felt pedestrian in comparison to later climbs, including Botley Hill, which was relentless and much of the repeat step-climbing interval hell that featured in the Kent section of the race overnight. It therefore felt as though the toughest sections of the route lined up with the middle third of the race, when a perfect storm of aching muscles, lack of enthusiasm for hill climbing and a constant battle to keep calories and fluid topped up occurred.

One of my very late and somewhat impulse purchases pre-race was a pair of Black Diamond carbon-fibre, collapsible trekking poles, of the type I’d seen some runners use on the Eiger. I’d been in two minds over whether to take poles with me at all, sceptical of whether or not the climbs really could be worthy of them; the last thing I wanted to do was carry anything that wasn’t strictly necessary. Whilst I have a pair of poles already, they lack the distinct advantages of being both super-lightweight and compact, both features that I would come to value at this distance. When I did eventually break them out of their binding on my pack I was very grateful to have them along, especially as I made extensive use of them in the final third of the race when my right leg, specifically my knee, decided to protest vigorously about the mileage being asked of it. There were downhill sections, especially, where without poles I’d have found it very challenging indeed to descend them. They will absolutely accompany me now on any future races where a gradient features such was their utility.

Whilst tired I also felt a wave of pride wash over me as I came into the halfway point at the Knockholt village hall, keeping up a decent pace and run technique as I entered the village before seeing mum and dad waiting for me, a very welcome sight indeed. My initial plan was to spend just 30 minutes at this station, enough time to eat some proper food, change my T-shirt, socks and shoes and charge up the Garmin, before cracking on again. However, I opted ultimately to take an hour’s break and in hindsight was glad for it as by the time I did gather up my effects to push on I was feeling significantly revitalised as I headed into the second, much tougher half of the race. Realising that I was able to hand off my drop bag to my parents a new plan was hatched whereby mum and dad would meet me at a couple more of the aid stations, including Detling, where our second drop bag was waiting. This meant that were I by some miracle able to finish in under 24 hours we would not be obliged to hang around Ashford until the drop bags were returned and could instead return to Farnham for some much needed R&R. This did, however, mean that mum and dad were signing up to stay awake until pretty late into the night and would ultimately have to catch some Z’s in the car at Ashford whilst I ran towards it overnight. Not part of my original plan for them but they were happy to play their part and, again, were really instrumental in getting me to that finish line.

Shortly after exiting the Wrotham Cricket Club aid station, with the light just starting to fade, I hit a personal milestone as my GPS clocked in at 100km! After failing to complete the full 101km of the Eiger in 2018 hitting the 100 mark was quite emotional as it felt as though I’d somehow exorcised a few of the demons from that race. I had proven to myself that I was capable of doing that sort of mileage, which really helped reinforce the determination that I was going to make it all the way in this race regardless.

Darkness Descends

Mindful of preserving battery power for as long as possible, I ran for as long as I was able without the light from my head torch, ultimately being forced to illuminate the dense woodland path in front of me, albeit keeping the lamp on as low an intensity as was possible whilst still being able to navigate safely. Although it was initially a little creepy to be running solo through dense woodland with just a headlamp to light the way, and imagining something or someone jumping out at me from the shadows – doing so would have been a monumentally dick move on anyone’s part – I soon settled into a decent pace and actually found the night-running quite calming as it really boiled down to there being zero distraction. The only thing to focus on was the path directly in front of me, whilst remaining vigilant for the course markers. These were, thankfully, numerous and combined with the extremely accurate course tracking that was active on my Garmin going off course was never really a concern.

The geographical ‘right hand turn’ at Rochester, which saw us leave the cosy confines of the trail and head onto the paved path that ran over the Medway bridge alongside the M2 motorway was a bit of a mental milestone for me as whilst there were still several hours of running ahead, it felt very much like the ‘homeward stretch.’ Unfortunately, whilst heading south the terrain didn’t quite match and there were still some meaty climbs to contend with, the one up to Bluebell Hill proving especially lengthy and relentless. It was on this stretch that a few fellow runners succumbed to nausea, stopping suddenly mid-run to vomit before plodding on. For me, however, it wasn’t nausea that was the issue but rather severe tiredness. I lost count of the number of times I felt an overwhelming urge to just curl up in the fetal position on the side of the trail and just ‘rest a while.’ I’d wondered whether or not a tactical snooze was going to be necessary on this race, especially as I had seen runners do just that at the halfway point at the Eiger the year before, and given that I was literally falling asleep on my feet my mind was made up: I would pause for a bit at Bluebell Hill, which mercifully was where mum and dad were due to meet me next.

As I folded my now aching body into the back of dad’s Ford Fiesta, I tried as best as I could to actually get some sleep, never really drifting off fully on account of being so bloody sore but feeling the relief of just having stopped for a period of time. Inevitably the alarm call came and I was encouraged back out of the car, which was when I suddenly felt a rush of cold and nausea wash over me. Steadying myself and fearful that I was about to pass out and that this might well be the point at which my race came to an end, the feeling gradually ebbed away and once I donned my base layer and collected a cup of hot sweet tea from the aid station I started to feel human again and capable of cracking on back into the night. If it hadn’t registered properly before that this was one helluva undertaking then Bluebell Hill certainly made the point obvious. This was not an event for the faint-hearted. This was very very tough indeed.

The hours between Bluebell Hill and dawn, that saw me pass through the Detling aid station, the final one where I met up with my parents, were ones marked by memories of lots of steps – so many steps – and extremely overgrown trails that at times felt more like navigating through hedges than along a marked trail. I admit that during this period of the race I spent a decent amount of time babbling to myself and on numerous occasions swore out loud as yet more steps presented themselves, the very last thing I wanted to see given how stiff and painful my right leg and knee now was. The Kent wildlife undoubtedly heard this crazy, gibbering fool proclaiming expletives into the night and sensibly opted to give me a wide berth. One thing is for sure: if there were any ‘undesireables’ out on the course looking to make mischief, although quite why anyone would choose to be out in the arse end of the countryside at 3am unless it was to run 100 miles like a madman, they didn’t cross my path, possibly as I sounded crazier than they would have been.

A New Day & The Finish In Sight

Eventually the dawn cracked and with the light now returning to the world the head torch was retired. I’d officially overcome the huge mental challenge of running through the night and although I was ridiculously tired and sore I had ample time to make it to the finish. Unless something went spectacularly wrong I was going to make it. It certainly wasn’t going to be sub-24 hours, my initial goal, but it would be within the 30 hour cutoff and at the end of the day a finish was a finish.

At the penultimate aid station the awesome volunteers, who had all been up throughout the night, did their best to keep everyones’ spirits up, pointing out that we were tantalisingly close to the end. One runner, however, chose to throw in the towel at this stage, despite being essentially home, which seemed really tragic – after all, they’d already made it so far! Still, he must have had his reasons and no amount of encouragement from the volunteers and other runners was going to sway his decision. The 11km between the penultimate and final aid stations felt like an absolute eternity and as I finally came into it, choosing not to linger long, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. There were now just 6km or so between me and that hallowed finish line and it could not come quick enough, although moving quickly was not something I felt really able to do. Not at that point anyway.

Fast Finish

The weird thing is, however, that once I deviated away from the North Downs Way for the final 5km into Ashford and the stadium, I started jogging, then running and ultimately sprinted the final few kilometres. It always amazes me that no matter how fatigued and broken you might feel during a race, there always seems to be that reserve of energy or drive that fuels a return of form for the final stretch. Where had that form been prior to then?! I’d barely been able to break into a jog during the final several kilometres such was the discomfort I was experiencing from my right leg and yet now, all of a sudden, I was able to literally sprint. WTAF?! I put it down to just pure adrenaline and relief at being so close to the finish. It actually reminded me of the scene in the film, Forrest Gump, where he is chased as a kid and realises that his legs work and that he can, in fact, run like the wind. The look on my face, for example, as I realised the finish line was so incredibly close was almost a carbon copy of Forrest’s in this scene and I experienced a real wave of emotion as I crossed the road to enter the Ashford stadium complex, rounding the corner to see and then set foot onto the track. The finish line was now just 300m away and there was just one other runner on the track in front of me. Not wanting to crash his ‘finish line’ I initially slowed my pace so as to avoid us both crossing at the same time but as I rounded the corner with 100m to go, he slowed dramatically to fish out a camera and so I made the decision to put my foot on the gas and get past him. That final 100m felt fast as I gritted my teeth and powered on home. I had done it! I’d successfully completed my first ever 100 mile ultramarathon and could safely say that it had been the hardest thing I’d ever done so far. Whilst I was able to park the pain and sprint home, the minute I crossed that line I felt every one of those 168km rush back into my legs and promptly found myself hobbling again. Ouch, ouch and twice more ouch! Anyone who claims that such races are easy is a twat. They are not. They could never be and I wouldn’t believe anyone who claimed they were.

Having my folks there to share in the achievement of the moment was magical and with the coveted Centurion NDW 100 belt buckle and finishers T-shirt in hand I picked up my gratefully received hotdog, lowered myself onto the morning-sun-kissed grass like an arthritic geriatric and just luxuriated in the ecstasy of not moving. Bliss!

The winning time, it turned out, was a record-breaking 15.5 hours, which is just unfathomably fast. Having experienced how tough the course was the very notion of being able to sustain such a colossally rapid pace over the entire duration, especially given how overgrown and steep much of it was, still blows my mind. As far as races and race organisers go, this ranks up there as one of the best. Centurion seemed to think of everything and with the entire course so well marked out, including the genius move of making the arrows reflective – they could be easily spotted from a distance with a head torch – and such fantastically well supplied and supported aid stations, I simply have nothing but praise for them. They did a superb job and I would absolutely sign up to another of their races in the future, although I’m not sure I’m going to be ready to tackle another 100 miler for a while yet!

Post Race Recovery

Having learned the hard way in Whistler what happens when one doesn’t rest properly after an ultra I opted this time NOT to go out for an all-night clubbing session and didn’t even so much as look at my running shoes for more than 2 weeks. The statistics speak for themselves as it’s claimed that 75% of those who complete an ultra-distance race succumb to an upper respiratory infection within two weeks after their race. Having been there, done that and worn the phlegm-stained T-shirt I wanted to remain healthy. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to run convincingly for the first week even if I’d wanted to. I’d made a conscious decision not to take any pain killers either during or after this race, having naively done so before but now understand and appreciate just how potentially dangerous it can be to do so. Plus, taking them during a race does feel like doping even if it’s not so I’d rather just abstain for the sake of both my kidneys and sense of fair-play. As such, I relied on good old rest, a trip to a floatation tank (super relaxing and a bit trippy) and a sports massage (essential but oh-my-God painful), with time then doing the rest. I did, however, permit myself the indulgence of a post-race beer – lovely! At the time of writing it has been two weeks since the race and my legs, especially my right, is feeling about 95% back to normal, meaning that the pain, discomfort and thoughts of “nope, not doing this craziness again” have gradually subsided, to be replaced by creeping thoughts of “hmm, what could I possibly do next…?”

Whilst the physical discomfort post-race was something I’d have happily done without, the sudden liberation of time that would, pre-race, have been devoted to training has been something to savour. Those initial couple of weeks immediately after a big race are great as all of those fun leisure activities, like visiting the cinema, catching up with friends or simply just sitting in a cafe reading a paper or book, kind of feel officially mandated and essential. Almost like they have been prescribed by a coach and are, in essence, part of the event itself. Any feelings of guilt that might otherwise have accompanied simple sloth gives way, in those post-race moments, to the thought, “I deserve this!” It kind of makes the whole putting-yourself-through-Hell worth it and perhaps is all part of the feedback loop that keeps us endurance athletes hooked on the sporting opium that is the next event and seeking ever larger goals to pursue.

As for my next event or athletic goal, I’m really not sure at the moment. I am still enjoying basking in the post-race glow and have been tinkering around with editing a video of the experience. Whilst a few ideas have flitted into and back out of my mind I am not looking to rush into anything and am happy to just let my return to running occur organically. Who knows what’s next? That’s part of the fun, right?

FINAL FINISH TIME = 26:42:35
MOVING TIME = 24:39:08
POSITION = 95th (out of 188 finishers)

 

HUGE thanks to the following awesome people:

  • Trace Rogers – once again, Trace’s incredible coaching skills have helped guide me to achieve something that I had previously considered impossible. She is not only a top coach but a lovely person who I am blessed to be able to call a friend. GroWings, the team who I occasionally train with, are a wonderful group of characters based in Dubai and the sense of team spirit that Trace fosters in her athletes is inspirational.

 

  • Michael Brown – ultra-running, especially the training, can be a mighty lonely affair. It makes a huge difference to have a fellow nutcase on board to share some of the tedium with. Michael has been that nutter as he recently completed his first ever ultra, a 58km monster run up and down Mount Etna, an actual erupting volcano! It is amazing how many wide-ranging topics of conversation one can tackle over the course of regular five hour training runs through endless tracts of sand. I like to think we pushed each other towards our own, individual finish lines.

 

  • Mum & Dad – my biggest supporters, they have accompanied me to all of my big races over the past few years and 2019 was no exception. Even though there was never any initial plan to crew me over the 103 miles of the North Downs Way that is precisely what they ended up doing, essentially pulling an all-nighter to be on hand to offer support exactly when I needed it the most. Having my folks there at the finish line to share in the emotion of what felt like a monumental achievement was the best part of the whole experience and I can’t thank them enough. Love you both!

Full Race Report (PDF):

You Ran How Far_NDW 100_2019_with photos_G

Whistler 50 2018 – Race Report

Mountains? Check. Epic views? Check and, once more, check. Unbelievably awesome race conditions? Absolutely check. On reflection the decision to throw caution to the wind and sign up for the Whistler 50 – the 50 in this case referring to the number of miles – was a very good one as in terms of manners by which to experience the alpine landmark that is Whistler, BC outside of the ski season this turned out to be one of the best. As a social experience it was also an exceptional weekend.

The fact that it has taken me so long to actually write and publish this report is on account of having learnt one very important lesson the hard way: the vital importance of adequate rest and recuperation following a big race, and the very real risks of succumbing to illness that accompany big race-day efforts. Needless to say I succumbed and part of my report will delve into the important lessons taken from what has been a very unpleasant several days.

Initial Apprehension

If truth be told I was apprehensive about this race in spite of the weeks of good, solid training that I was fortunate enough to be able to commit to, with more time at hand on account of being on a sabbatical and setting my own schedule, the plethora of amazing trails and run routes on offer around my apartment and Vancouver in general, and the availability of both gym facilities and a high spec athletics track a mere stone’s throw from my place. So as far as training went I was, on paper, set for a great race. However, concerns remained as in spite of feeling physically fit – in fact, as fit, I think, as I ever have, save perhaps for when I was at peak Ironman training – I was concerned that my mental game was going to let me down, especially coming off the back of not completing the Eiger 101 and the issues I had halfway through my last 50km race back in Dubai, when I hit a mental wall big time. Ultras are unlike any other endurance sport I have engaged in so far – they properly mess with your head in addition to the sheer physical demands that come with running such long distances. As much as I would love to claim to be the most mentally resilient athlete there is I know that I’m not and my tolerance for real discomfort is actually pretty low. So why did I choose this sport again?!

Whilst the distance was set to be longer than anything I’ve run to date – Wadi Bih was 72km – the profile, according to that published on the event website, was relatively tame in comparison to many alpine races. That doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park, especially with most of the climbing taking place in one relatively short but intense section of the second loop. The course itself comprised four repeated loops of 20km each, with those then split into two separate loops that started and ended back in the Olympic Plaza – yep, complete with giant Olympic rings – right in the centre of Whistler village. The first of the two was 13km and essentially traced a course around the perimeter of the golf course and was almost entirely on paved surface, whilst the second felt a little more ‘trail.’ That one was shorter, at 7km, and headed out from the village along the river as it tumbled and rolled over boulders and rocks on its long route from peak to sea, before climbing up to and past Lost Lake, providing absolutely breathtaking views and a picture of alpine serenity, before descending back down to the river and the village. The looping nature of the course meant that we were able to access both the main aid station and our drop bags multiple times, a blessing for the most part but, as the race wore on, the mileage ramped up and the fatigue really started to set in, a real temptation to take perhaps too long between loops and, with those mental niggles becoming louder shouts, an easy option to throw in the towel.
Two smaller loops made up each 20km loop
Nutrition has, in previous races, been an Achilles heel of mine and has almost certainly played a role in some of my tougher moments. Basically the issue is that I just don’t eat enough during the race and when I do start feeling hungry then unfortunately that is often the point at which it’s too late to really make a significant difference. As such, a priority for me in this race was to pay closer attention to eating and drinking enough to stay hydrated and adequately fueled. Whilst I do have Tailwind, the liquid nutrition that many in the ultra community appear to use, I am yet to get my head around, or even my stomach for that matter, the recommendation to consume the quantities they do. As such, I still very much make use of good old fashioned ‘solids,’ with my particular choice of fuel for this race coming in the form of various candy bars (Snickers & Mars to be specific), bananas, cereal bars and, at the halfway point, some mouthfuls of delicious beef jerky, which does absolute wonders for sating that inevitable salt craving that develops at some point and, well, just a nice break from all the sugary shit. In hindsight I probably should have eaten more still, as there were definitely some moments when I did actually feel hungry and I know that my fluid intake should definitely have been greater. I had been pretty good during the earlier stages of the race, remembering to sip regularly and feeling happy to have to visit the little runners room now and then, but as the day wore on and my mind became set firmly on the finish I confess to taking my eye off the ball and consuming less. The fact that I finished the race with some of my original 2 litres of fluid in my pack somewhat drove this fact home as I had fully expected to fill it at least once or twice during the day. Definitely something to ruminate on in preparation for future races.

Pre-Race Prep

One of the advantages of being free to set my own agenda – primarily on account of the VR/AR “course” I came to Vancouver to partake it turning out to be a dud, thus forcing me to go completely independent – is that I was able to take the time and head up to Whistler in advance of the race, get settled and not have to rush come race day. The easiest option was to book a seat on one of the various buses that operate a shuttle service to and from the resort, with Epic Rides being the operator I ultimately chose, paying CA $35 for a ticket each way. The advantage of just getting to kick back on a bus was that a) I was able to actually enjoy the views en route rather than focus on not killing myself behind the wheel, and b) eliminated all the expense and hassle of dealing with a hire car. After all, I wasn’t planning on doing any driving once up in the mountains anyway so having a car parked all weekend would have been redundant.

Another advantage of the bus was that it was a nice way of meeting some new people, with one person being a fellow solo ultra runner, Ingrid, who originally hails from Brazil but is now based in Victoria, BC and was heading up to Whistler clearly looking to put in a good solid performance.

Once in Whistler I was struck not by the overwhelming beauty of the place, because, well, I knew it was going to be and had been able to admire the changing scenery en route, but rather by how happy I felt to be back up in the mountains. For a lad who grew up in flat, rural Norfolk I do have this affinity for peaks that means that I just feel happy in the mountains. It was the same in Tahoe, the same in Switzerland and now here in Canada – there is just something mesmerisingly majestic about being able to peer up and drink in the view of snow-capped mountains, knowing that they’ve been there way before us and will, almost certainly, be there long after we’ve all pushed ourselves out of existence. Its humbling. Levelling.
As far as views from a bus stop go, Whistler’s is pretty good. As is the pizza 🙂
The town of Whistler was much like the ski towns I have visited in other parts of the world, and as I strolled down through the village in search of my hotel the usual, familiar names were evident – Patagonia, North Face, Starbucks etc – albeit sitting alongside as many independents. It was clearly a popular town and was busy even in the absence of any skiable snowfall. My hotel, the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel, was located just a stone’s throw from Olympic Plaza and the main focus of activity on race day, and was extremely comfortable, even coming with a hot tub and pool, welcome amenities when it came to after the race.
Whistler is a breathtakingly beautiful town, surrounded by even more stunning scenery
It took a good amount of willpower not to give in to the temptation to wander off on a long hike such was the allure of the surrounding countryside and the fact that it was a stunning Autumn day, although I did do a decent explore of the town itself, stopping off for some exquisite pizza and sitting by the river to join the Thinking Man sculpture in some quiet contemplation – good spot for it! At 5pm we were able to call in and pick up our race packs, with the solo runners dealt with at a smaller table by the race organiser, Ron. Apparently there were about 44 runners registered in total for the race and so it was set to be a great day, especially with the forecast remaining as good as it had been all week – quite the contrast to the year before by all accounts. I was definitely going to need to remember to pack my camera for the race!
The Olympic Rings at Olympic Plaza: the start and finish of the ultra-marathon
With my race gear placed out, nutrition organised and bagged up and one, final high-carb meal safely put away I was tucked up in bed by 9pm, meaning that I actually, remarkably, got a full 7 hours of sleep in by the time the alarm pierced the ambience in the morning.

Race Day

I was eager to get going and see what the day had in store. I knew I’d prepared, I knew I was fit and I knew that I was feeling as good as I could expect to just a short time away from hearing the starter’s horn. As such it was just a matter of going through the usual race-prep motions: food in, anxiety out, get dressed, final bag checks and then head out the door. Given the forecast for very chilly temperatures to start I opted for multiple layers fully expecting that I had likely overdone it and would be removing at least one a short distance into the race. In the end, however, my choice of trail top, thermal layer, cycling thermal layer, gloves, snood and a beanie proved to be more than required and all remained in place for at least the first two laps of the course – it was freeeeezzzziiiinnnnggg!!!

Race

As 6am rolled around those of us mad enough to choose to run 80km collected at the start, having dropped off our aid station bags, and counted down until we were officially off! My tactic, as far as I had one, was to keep my pace really steady to start, aiming to run no harder than would have been comfortable to chat at and to focus on remembering the route as best I could. It was extremely dark for most of the first loop, with headlamps mandatory and actually very much needed. Whilst the views in the dark were lacking it did help to ensure that focus remained on running sensibly and on both eating and drinking regularly. To say that there wasn’t a part of me that was a little nervous/ excited at the very real prospect of some sort of wildlife to come leaping out of the dark depths would be a lie – after all, we were running in actual bear country!

By the time we were about 7km in I really started to find my pace and was feeling strong, with the going perfect, the air crisp and fresh and the only sounds to be heard the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze, the rhythmic pad of feet on the path and the sound of my thoughts. It is moments like those that we run for – being one of the only people for miles around to be up and out, enjoying nature and just drinking it all in! Blissful.

Wrong Turn

The bliss, however, soon changed to concern as the two runners I had caught up to and I passed a sign that stated the village was 4.2km in the opposite direction to that in which we were running despite it being clear that we should have been no more than a kilometre from home, having already run about 12km of what was meant to be a 13km loop. When the scenery started to look very familiar we decided that we had, in fact, gone wrong and started running back the way we came. As we passed another runner he seemed confident that we hadn’t gone wrong and so, given that I had zero idea either way, I swung back round and joined him – after all, he seemed pretty sure. It was about 2km down the route, when it was absolutely crystal clear that we’d passed that section before, that it did dawn on us that we had gone wrong. How wrong was unclear but there had been a route error at some point. The trouble was that on that first loop we’d seen nobody official at all and so trying to work out what had happened and where the error may have occurred was a guessing game. Feeling pretty annoyed at ourselves, especially given how early it was in the race to be adding unnecessary extra miles, we made the decision to just start tracking back towards the village, as signposted by the roadside signs. It transpired that where we’d gone wrong, and where a lot of others had made the same error, was at the 10km aid station. I recall running towards it, seeing two other runners ahead, and seeing a portable toilet, table and white gazebo, but no-one manning it. We’d been advised to look out for orange cones marking the route and so seeing that said cones went to the right most of us naturally followed them in that direction. What we hadn’t realised at the time was that it was a tricky station that actually represented a bidirectional split – on the outward leg of the loop we ran to the aid station, passing it on our right, but on the return leg we were actually meant to hang a left at it, to pick up the trail specifically back into town! Some people who had raced the same route before had apparently remembered this and so avoided the error whilst those of us blindly following the cones were the ones to get drawn into the trap.

In the end Mike and I ended up returning to the start via part of the second loop route and added on nearly 5km to our total for the day, an annoying way to start but thankfully not ruinous, especially after checking that our failure to come over the requisite timing mat was not going to result in a disqualification. If that had been a risk then I’d have been more peeved but as it all looked to be ok I just chalked it up to one of those ultra experiences to learn from and focused on the rest of the day, and trying to make up some of the lost time whilst trying to avoid pushing too hard or fast too early and blowing the rest of the race.

Back in the Race

With some more fuel on board it was off and out onto the second, shorter loop. I confess that I did jack up the pace for the first 2km but was thankfully slowed to something more sensible by the arrival of the first climb of the loop. I learnt pretty early on in ultra running that there is very little advantage to be gained from trying to run up gradients over a certain steepness – it’s just inefficient! As such, I power-hiked up most of the climbs, taking the opportunity to catch my breath, take on food and water and just gather my thoughts. The climbing in this race all seemed to be focused in one relatively short section of the second loop and by the time we reached Lost Lake, whose appearance changed with each lap and as the day progressed, it was a long, steady downhill run back to the village and the start of grand-loop number two.

With the route now manned with supporters and volunteers it was much clearer where we were supposed to go. As such it was easier to just relax into the race and not have to worry about going wrong again. I found the second loop to be my best as I was well warmed up by then, feeling energetic and just enjoying the experience and the views of being out in Whistler, with no hint of muscle pain setting in – just that lovely sense of flow that comes from running well in breathtaking surroundings and with perfect conditions.

By the time I made it out onto lap three I was aware of the relay runners, primarily on account of the fact that they rather unsurprisingly passed us solo runners at a decent clip and devoid of any pack on their backs. They were running a very different race to us – more of a sprint in their case – and so remembering this helped to avoid feeling disillusioned when they did sail past looking strong. The support everyone got from one another, and from the plethora of volunteers along the route, was wonderful and made a huge difference to the overall experience of the race, especially during those final laps when the fatigue was starting to kick in and the desire to walk became ever stronger. Seeing an aid station coming up with supporters whooping and hollering at you to keep going and telling you how well you’re doing does wonders for lifting even the most weary of spirits and I’m sure all of us put in PBs over those specific, short sections alone. One stand out memory for me was jogging along at what felt like a very slow pace on my final long loop when a relay runner zipped past me shouting as she did, “you are awesome!” I confess that put a smile smack bang on my face and really helped drive the legs home.
The views on race day were some of the most spectacular of any race I have run
With just the final 7km to go I dropped off everything bar my camera at the aid station before striking out, feeling pumped that this was it: the final push. 7km? What was that? Nothing! I knew that I could tick that off even if my legs and feet were definitely aching by that point. It was the length of a short training run, that was all. With one final set of pics taken at the lake viewing point – the best light of the day was absolutely during the fourth lap – it was time to dig in for one, final push down the hill and home. It always amazes me that no matter how much you’ve put into a race and how tired one might be feeling, there is always a sprint in the legs for the final few hundred meters. And so it was, as I saw the village come into view I stepped on the gas, literally sprinting down the last section of road before crossing over into the plaza and then left towards the finish! I was so pumped at that moment and felt absolutely elated as I crossed the line in a total time of 8 hours 24 mins, and a total distance of just under 85km. Not bad for a day’s work 🙂
Reaching the finish line was a fantastic feeling! Bottom-Right: Mike, his wife Channon, and I with our medals.

Celebrate Good Times

Whilst I was feeling tired, very tired, and sore following an entire working-day of pretty much non-stop running I was also feeling elated. I’d put in a solid performance, dealt with an early setback in good humour and ultimately pushed on to have a great day. I was very pleased. Mike came through the finish a little after me and I made sure to hobble over to congratulate him – whilst we’d not necessarily run together together for most of the day, we were definitely close and I considered him my main ‘brother in arms’ for the day. Its an incredibly friendly sport and I am always amazed at the range of lovely people you end up meeting during ultras.

The social element of my experience continued as I made my way back over to the hotel – I knew it was a blessing to have booked one so close by – and ultimately into the blissfully soothing warm waters of the hot tub. There is nothing like lowering run-weary legs down into bubbling warm water! Lovely! It wasn’t long before others joined, with the first people climbing in being three guys who had run as part of a relay team from Vancouver. In short course the rest of their team, who were all staying at the hotel as well, joined, making for a cosily packed hot tub. I learned that they were part of a relay team put together from their run group, the Oak Street Runners, which I realised was fairly close to where I was based at UBC. They’d had a cracking day, coming in 17th overall, and no wonders with several very fast runners among their team, in addition to doing the race in fancy dress, which always scores awesome points in my book! They were even nice enough to invite me to join them for some drinks at the local bar that evening, something I eagerly took them up on given that a good beer and conversation is the best way to mark the completion of a successfully run race in my humble opinion.

Fast forward an hour or so, during which time I tried to catch a few much needed Z’s, and I sauntered across the road to the bar to meet everyone. To say they were a welcoming and riotously fun group to hang out with would be an understatement and those couple of initial drinks progressed to joining them for tapas (and more drinks) at an awesome local restaurant, before we hit the clubs and the night went from there. Short version of the story = very little sleep, a very fatigued Sunday but a perfect way to round out what had consistently proven itself to be an epic weekend. I would like to say a huge thank you to them all for making me a welcome part of their team that weekend – thanks to Yun, Dom, Mary, Davide, Dave, Marko, Carola and Joanna 🙂
Couldn’t have asked for a more awesome group of fantastic people to celebrate with

The Price of No Rest

 
What surprised me following the weekend was just how surprisingly good I felt. My legs barely ached and I felt energetic, so much so that I quickly jumped into the mission I had set myself, which had been to learn how to do a hockey stop on the ice. With no running to officially do, although I did join Jo for a cheeky 10km on the Monday evening, I saw no problem in directing my energies elsewhere. Unbeknownst to me, however, was that in spite of feeling good I really should have forced myself to properly take it easy. According to some studies runners recovering from an ultra marathon can be at greater risk of developing, for example, upper respiratory infections. In hindsight, going out the night of the race and “having it large” probably wasn’t the smartest move either, as the liver is already pretty stressed from the race without having several drinks thrown in for good measure. Still, I didn’t really know or give much thought to any of this at the time and as far as I was concerned I felt great. Until that it is, I didn’t.

Almost a week to the day, during a trip over to Toronto to see some family, I started to feel feverish, then developed an acutely painful throat that ultimately saw me call in to a doctor. The initial diagnosis was Strep throat and I was issued with antibiotics and told to carry on taking Tylenol. Cue one of the most miserable weeks of my life so far, including a flight back to Vancouver during which I repeatedly felt like chucking up, and no let up in what felt like my head being in a slowly tightening vice, my teeth and jaw in a similarly badly fitted brace and throat feeling as though an army of spike-wearing devils were doing a constant jig on my tonsils. That an ongoing fever that all served to make me feel bloody wretched. The diagnosis after a second trip to see a doctor was actually severe pharyngitis, most likely viral and as a result of my immune system being in a weakened state following the exertions of the race the week before. Even as I write this I am still recovering and think I now have had some glimpse into what it might feel like to be 110! If my experience this past week had anything to do with failing to look after myself properly following running an ultra-marathon then I vow in future to be far, far better to myself. Health is one of those incredibly precious attributes we have and only truly appreciate when it is not present – if taking a few more days off, as in really off – and relaxing properly following a race can help avoid feeling as shitty as I have then sign me up! One thing I do know now is that I am absolutely not Superman! 🙂

Going Long in Canada

Whistler. The name alone is instantly recognisable. Immediately it conjures up images of pristine alpine perfection and for anyone visiting Vancouver, it feels almost irresponsible not to make the effort to head out of the city to check Whistler out for yourself. I know Whistler more as a hallowed site of snow sports action, with the memory still firmly lodged in my mind of the Canadian friend I had way back in New Zealand, during my Gap Year travels, who playfully scoffed at the very idea of essentially slumming it on Kiwi slopes when she was used to the “perfect powder of Whistler.” Since then I have had this image and idea of the place firmly chiselled into my psyche. I had to check it out even though it would not be to engage in any snowboarding, a simple, irksome yet unavoidable feature of the fact that the snow doesn’t generally arrive and the resorts don’t open until after I am scheduled to fly back home. Still, it’s not just snow sports that attract visitors to Whistler and I didn’t have to search too long to find my excuse to go: an ultra marathon!

Fresh off the Eiger 101 experience in July, an alpine race that really showed me how tough this sport and the mountains can be, I was, initially, apprehensive about the idea of signing up for another long-distance mountain race. However, the one I found, a four loop course totalling 80km, and part of a main, team relay event, appears, on paper, to be way less brutal than the Eiger had proven to be. The event itself is the BC Athletics Whistler 50 Relay & Ultra. As far as I can tell, the course is relatively flat, sticking close to the centre of Whistler itself, and sounds as though it is set to be a really fun, sociable event, with a big post-race party featuring prominently on their marketing materials.
Course for the ultra in Whistler
At the end of the day my priority was getting up to see Whistler and so if I can combine that with an actual sporting event then all the better. Of course I intend to finish the race but, ultimately, if the distance does end up beating me then it won’t be the end of the world as it was never the number one goal of going. Having said that, I have run (close to) the distance before, with Wadi Bih sitting at 72km in length, so with some good training and favourable race day conditions, I don’t see any reason to doubt myself in the solo category. Credit card swiped and I was in. The easy part done.

Whilst I was due to be physically located the other side of the world during the preparation for the race I knew full well that, once again, the expert advice and training guidance of my coach, Trace, was required and, once again, she needed no encouragement to join me on this new, crazy challenge. With all my belongings packed away in storage, essentials in a suitcase and eager to see what my three months in Vancouver were going to lead to, I jetted out of Dubai and, via Amsterdam, made my way to Canada. Ironically the first couple of weeks turned out to be less than desirable training conditions, with government air warnings being issued daily on account of the smoke and fine particulate matter in the air, a result of the forest fires raging away to the north and south. It was so bad the first week of my stay that I didn’t actually get to set eyes on the mountains that form the backdrop to North Vancouver until into week two of being there. My first day in the city did see me do a lap round Stanley Park’s sea wall, an iconic run but on reflection perhaps as healthy an experience as simply pulling up a bar stool in a local pub and chugging through a pack of cigarettes. Ironic then that I found myself advising Trace that in spite of having left the hot, dusty conditions of the UAE in summer – hostile training conditions for outdoor training – for what I expected to be the nirvana of run training, much of the planned ‘fresh air’ runs that were scheduled on my plan had to be canned until the air improved. It didn’t help matters that, almost certainly due to the bad air, I developed a sore throat, and found the first few weeks of running here in Canada surprisingly tough, with my legs feeling ridiculously stiff and sore whenever I headed out. I couldn’t figure out whether it was just a case of not being used to the temperate conditions or still feeling the Eiger in my muscles, although I’d surely had ample recovery(?) Thankfully it has all since resolved and the past few weeks of training have felt way more comfortable with the pain that I was, at times, experiencing gone and instead replaced by the all too familiar and infinitely more reassuring tiredness that comes with a good, solid workout. I recognise that feeling and embrace it as a training partner!
Week 1 (top) with smoke & haze obscuring the mountain view & Week 3 (bottom) showing the true beauty of Vancouver
In addition to the legs regaining their mojo the air quality thankfully improved relatively swiftly and the smoke now feels like a weird, distant memory, replaced instead by what I had expected and excitedly anticipated by moving to Vancouver: crisp, clean air, nature-abundant trails and views that turn any training run into a sumptuous feast for the visual cortex. I ended up being extremely fortunate with my accommodation arrangements by finding a room in an apartment to rent just on the edge of the UBC (University of British Columbia) campus, out on the western tip of Vancouver and nestled within the stunning forests of the Pacific Spirit National Park, an extensive area of ancient woodland that’s criss-crossed by scores of trails, ranging from the wide, straight and relatively flat all the way through to the narrow, winding and undulating. It is a trail runners playground and one could be satisfied simply sticking to running in the immediate vicinity of my apartment, let alone the tempting offerings that come from venturing beyond this corner of Vancouver. Another stroke of luck was the fact that literally next door to my apartment building is a branch of a Canadian running store chain, The Running Room, that hosts weekly social runs. As such, every Sunday morning sees me join a lovely eclectic group of runners, ranging across age, nationality and all with the same goal: to come out and just enjoy running. This regular injection of social contact into my run training has been fantastic, especially as a lot of the time long-distance running can often feel like quite a solitary endeavour. To round out my good fortune with regard to training my place also happens to be less than a kilometre from the main UBC athletics track, which so far seems to be open to any and all to make use of, which is an absolute treat and one that has enabled some really excellent interval training to be built into my programme. I actually don’t think I could have asked to be in a better location for run training, and it all came about more by luck than design!

There have been a few standout moments so far in my running here in Vancouver, with one of the earliest being taking part in a Running Rooms event at Stanley Park: a night run. The Friday evening of my second week in the city saw me join scores of other enthusiastic pavement pounders as we adorned ourselves with glowsticks and hit either the 5km or 10km races that took in most of the sea wall that I’d run just the week before, except this time at night. I was especially pleased with my time and although a stitch set in at the 8km mark – an annoying performance curber – I posted a pretty fast time of just over 40 minutes for the full 10km. That really gave my confidence a shot in the arm and I feel as though the training has stepped up nicely since.
Neon was the name of the game for the Night Run around Stanley Park
Another early experience was during my first solo run around the UBC area. As much an excuse to just explore as it was a training run, my ‘make it up as you go along’ route saw me head on down the steep woodland staircase from Marine Drive to Wreck Beach, a popular stretch of coastline that is well known for being ‘clothing optional.’ It transpired that way more of the punters at the beach that day opted NOT to wear any clothes and so I had my first real experience of Canadian liberalism, including at one point some dude who asked me for directions and then proceeded to try and engage me in a full conversation about how his wife was from the UK etc, all whilst his entire compliment of junk was out flip-flapping away. All I could think at the time was, “seriously dude! This is way too weird for me right now…. I just want to carry on running!” Very comical indeed!

One of the early advantages of throwing in with the local running store was that I was able to join a few of them on a couple of trips across to North Vancouver, with one to do a hike on the Baden Powell trail from Deep Cove, and another to tackle the punishably steep and heart-bursting Grouse Grind, that takes masochists like us from the base to the top of Grouse mountain in just under 2km! The record for it sits at about 25mins, which is insanely quick. It took me just under an hour and that was with me really giving it some welly! I doubt I’d have made it over to check out such spots if it were not for the generous spirit of the people I was with as to do so with public transport would take about 2 hours, whereas in a car it only takes about 30 to 40 mins to get to each place.
Slightly different to the potential wildlife encounters posed in Dubai
Deep Cove (left) & Quarry Rock (right)
A few of the highlights of a trip up to Grouse Mountain
One other highlight to date has been running in Seattle during a weekend trip down to the US city. Similar in many regards to Vancouver, my long Saturday morning run was a fantastic way to explore yet another stunningly picturesque city. Running really is one of the best ways to explore new places!
And so with the race now less than a week away I am entering the final few days of tapered training. The forecast, at this stage anyway, is looking good for race day, with sunshine and mild to cool temperatures. If that remains the case then we should be set for an awesome weekend of running and fun. Bring it on!

Eiger 101 – RACE REPORT

When I initially found out about the Eiger 101 I had visions of running up and through outstandingly beautiful terrain, with the majesty of the Alps, and specifically the Eiger, as the backdrop. The reality was, I am thrilled to report, even more spectacular than the fantasy and from the second I landed in Switzerland and started my drive south to the Bernese Oberland, via Lake Lucerne, my senses were rewarded richly. From the purity of the air to the crystal clarity of the pristine lakes, all possible to enjoy whilst driving owing in large part to the impeccably well maintained infrastructure and sense of neat organisation that I understand to be typically Swiss, the overriding impression on arrival was one of being very much in that quintessential land of ‘milk and honey.’ My overnight stay in Lucerne was so picturesque and tranquil, with a view from my AirBNB room that could have stepped straight from the pages of a high-end travel brochure, to the gently lapping waves kissing the shore as I enjoyed a delicious, if not breathtakingly pricey – newsflash: Switzerland is very very expensive – meal at a lakeside restaurant, that even the unsurprising defeat of the England team in the World Cup could not dent my sense of calm.

A short run down from my B&B and along the lakefront gave me the first opportunity to try out the trekking poles I had purchased specifically for the race and it was immediately clear how much of a help they are when climbing a slope. With climbing being the theme, my drive onward took me winding up and around stunning passes as I entered the Alps proper, the lakes that flank Interlaken, my base for the race, coming into view and taking my breath away with their startling azure blue color. Just when you thought the view couldn’t get any more beautiful a corner would be rounded and there would present itself yet another vista of pure natural splendour that a landscape painter could spend a lifetime simply in one tiny corner of this land and never be bored. From Interlaken the might of the Jungfrau and Monch peaks come into view as one looks up the valley toward Lauterbrunnen, a place I know as a famous base-jumping spot. Perhaps it stems from the fact I hail from one of the flatter parts of the UK, specifically Norfolk, where we joke that one can get altitude sickness from driving over a speedbump, but I find the mountains utterly captivating and is, I am sure, one of the reasons I feel drawn towards events that compel me to engage with them. Tahoe was stunning but I daresay that the Bernese Oberland may well pip it to the post as far as sheer natural splendour goes, and that says a huge amount.


I had initially planned to base myself in Grindelwald itself, the mountain village that was both the start and finish of the Eiger 101 and other race distances, but due to a combination of simple tardiness in looking and an inevitable hike in prices I found myself being forced to look further down the mountain to Interlaken, the main jumping off point for visitors to the area and a bustling town with all the modern amenities that one comes to expect. My hotel was a basic affair, ultimately serving it’s purpose simply as a place to rest my head, and sure beat the other option I (briefly) considered: camping.


The first foray up to Grindelwald, approximately 30 minutes drive from Interlaken, offered the first clues as to the amount of climbing that the race would involve and also the potential limitations that the altitude could pose. I had identified the potential for altitude adjustment, or lack thereof, to be a factor as soon as I had entered but without the option to physically base myself at elevation for a couple of weeks prior to the race – not an option this year – I knew that I was simply going to have to place that aspect of my performance and experience in the hands of the Gods. I could, for example, feel myself breathing a little more actively even as I drove up to Grindelwald and had the niggle of a headache starting to set in. Aside from the standard, sensible, easy-to-do measures, such as as avoiding alcohol and caffeine, both of which serve as diuretics and thus hasten the onset of dehydration, drinking more fluids and ensuring sunscreen application, there wasn’t really anything more I could do to limit the effects that being nearly 2000 metres above sea-level, which is where I had done pretty much all of my training, would possibly have. At least the views would take my mind off the altitude and as I rounded a corner to see the Eiger for the first time I beamed. There it was! The mighty north face of the famous Eiger! What a spectacular setting for any race!


REGISTRATION & FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Grindelwald itself was much like any alpine town, with a busy centre populated by a plethora of restaurants, cafes, stores selling hiking, climbing and other outdoor gear and supplies, and a wonderful sports centre, which served as the nerve centre for the weekend. As with everything I encountered in Switzerland, the standard of infrastructure was world-class and the parking availability in the town was no exception. Open 24/7 – hugely beneficial considering my plans – and central, whilst pricey, the knowledge that I was able to park pretty much at the start was reassuring. My main objective that first trip up was to simply get a vibe for the place and familiarise myself with the layout of the race village et al in addition to just getting an early hit of the mountain air and atmosphere. The following morning I returned, eager to get registration and the mandatory gear check completed early. Once again, the organisation seemed on top form and with waiver signed, gear in tow and some palpable nerves starting to set in I took my turn to wait for the moment when it would all become official and I would be well and truly part of the starting line. That came with the handing over of the GPS pod that all 101 runners were provided with, serving as both a tracking beacon for organisers and supporters alike, in addition to serving it’s main purpose as an emergency beacon should the dire need arise. The sheer fact that we were being given an emergency beacon that would hail a rescue helicopter drove home just how full-on this race is and how much of a step-up it represented from any of the events I had partaken in before.

KIT

Whilst I have done a few ultras before I have not taken part in anything as long or extreme as the Eiger 101. As such my concept of what I would actually need on the run itself and at the halfway point was not guided by experience. As far as kit in my halfway bag was concerned I opted to include a complete change of clothes, including shoes, especially as I wasn’t sure if my feet would be wet or not by the time I arrived at the 52km mark. In terms of what I carried, there was the mandatory kit (see above), with the rain coat definitely proving it’s worth on a few occasions. In hindsight what I would like to have done was to reduce the weight I was carrying by a significant amount. My headlamps, for one, constituted a reasonable weight, especially my main lamp. It’s fantastically bright but does weigh a hefty amount so opting for the lightest, yet brightest, options would make for a smart future strategy. I would also opt to invest in a much lighter, thinner rain jacket as, again, it added to the weight I was carrying, especially once it was a bit damp. First aid kit – I carried a small yet comprehensive kit, which whilst good practice did add to the volume and weight I carried. The support on the course was very comprehensive so I really only needed to carry the mandatory items in the end, which would have reduced the volume and weight. Cameras – I was seriously in two minds over whether or not to take a camera on this race. Part of me felt that to let those views and elements of the experience go unrecorded would have felt wasteful whilst the other part of me worried that carrying a camera would have not only added unnecessarily to my weight but also proven distracting, taking my mind off the key objective, that being to actually complete the race. In the end I did opt to take both my GoPro, although I didn’t use it once, and my Insta360 camera, which proved to be especially useful for this kind of event – it was easy to carry, fitting snugly into one of the hip pockets on my pack, and rather helpfully captured a full 360 degrees, perfect for such expansive and majestic vistas, especially on the summit of Faulhorn. The other electronics that I would probably do without on the run itself would have been the charging pack for my watch and/ or phone. I could have left it in my halfway bag and simply charged my equipment during the aid stop, especially if I had managed to arrive in a faster time and so with the luxury of a relatively decent break at the stop. That way I would probably have been able to further reduce the weight and volume being carried. Even my cup, which was one of those awesome collapsible camping ones, had perhaps a little more weight that was ideal and, in hindsight, using one of the very lightweight, small ones that I saw a few people had clipped to their packs meaning they didn’t need to necessarily remove their packs at the aid stations, would have made more sense.


NUTRITION

This was always going to be one of my concerns and something that whilst I know is of vital importance to nail down for race day I still did not have certainty over. Pre-race nutrition was ok and I woke on Saturday morning having focused on ensuring I was adequately hydrated going to the start-line. Breakfast wasn’t especially heavy, with a banana, chocolate milk and a pear-pastry being what I opted for. I had indulged in a lasagna the evening before so didn’t really feel as though I needed much more heading into the race. In terms of what to use on the run itself my main plan was to rely on the Tailwind that I had recently purchased and that, based on reports, was great at helping to keep runners adequately fuelled throughout long races without then needing to fall back on gels etc. The other advantage of using a solution was that it would ensure I sipped regularly, thus keeping on top of hydration at the same time as fuelling. I knew, however, that liquids alone, were not going to be especially enjoyable and psychologically I knew that I would need some solids at some point. In the end I consumed some banana at one of the aid stations, a snickers bar, a couple of Gu stroopwaffles, a very considerate gift from my friend Anna, and a few small jerky sticks that I remember enjoying on previous races – just having sugary stuff soon gets tiresome and so it is really nice to enjoy something a little more savoury at times, especially later in the race. Had I made it into the 52km aid station with much more time to spare, and in a better state, then the pasta and mince that I had there would, I think, have actually set me up very nicely for the second half as I definitely did feel somewhat rejuvenated mentally, if not physically, shortly after eating a bowl of it. In hindsight I do wonder if I actually did consume enough calories during the race and whether that was one of the reasons I ultimately hit a wall. At no point, however, did I feel light-headed or weak, and think I did a reasonable job of remaining hydrated. Nutrition is, however, a very personal element of a race strategy and it is still something that I am trying to figure out. Experience, it seems, plays a big role in getting this aspect of one’s trail running in check.


RACE DAY

One of the great advantages of training in Dubai, especially during the summer months, is that early starts do not phase me. Getting up at 2am is almost routine on the weekends, especially when driving out to run in the wadis. As such, the 4am race start in Grindelwald did not seem in any way troublesome. With my alarm set for 1am, all of my equipment packed and stowed by the hotel room door, and my race-wear, including a relatively new purchase of a pair of Runderwear briefs – they’re awesome by the way – I retired to bed and was asleep by 9pm, not actually expecting to really get any meaningful shut-eye if truth be told. However, the next thing I knew the alarm was going off and it was game on!

1am showers are a bit of a new one to me but I figured that I was set to have a very lengthy, grimey day so at least starting it feeling clean and fresh would get my head in a good space. Plus, judicious application of cold water does more to wake a person than a shot of coffee could ever hope to.


One final check of the kit, food, including breakfast packed, and a confirmation of pick-up for fellow Eiger botherer, Victor, who had travelled over from London for the race and whom I had offered to provide a lift to up from Interlaken, and it was off we headed. One of the reasons that I wanted to get up to Grindelwald so early was that I was concerned that given the number of entries this year, there might be some issues finding parking close to the start on race day itself. I honestly need not have worried as we rolled into an almost deserted central car-park and so had time to wander to the start area and ask about where to place our half-way bags, before leisurely taking on some brekkie. In hindsight I might have been better off eating a little more at the start than I did but pre-race nerves do tend to curb one’s hunger. Still, I didn’t feel sick, just excited and eager to get this thing underway. One thing that is common across all sports and any big event is the need for the pre-start pilgrammage to the, ahem, facilities. One advantage of being early was that I was able to avail myself of them without suffering the ‘music festival’ atmosphere that tends to quickly develop around them. Phew!


With the race start approaching the area just behind the line started filling with people, with the deathly silence of just a few souls quietly pottering around being replaced by the anticipatory hum of excited voices and the obligatory motivational soundtrack. I guess the idea that anyone not doing the race and staying in the centre of town being permitted a restful early morning snooze was thrown out, especially when right on cue, at 4am, the race was started and a large cannon was fired! It was magical running through the village, as there were scores of supporters up and out even at that time of the morning, and as we snaked up the valley towards the start of the actual trail, I was beaming from ear to ear. I was here, finally, in the Alps taking on this mammoth challenge. What a world away from the Middle East. Victor had originally suggested that we try and stick together for as much of the race as possible, an idea that I was happy to go along with, especially given how mentally tough I know these races can get later on, and knowing that he had experience of running long in such events. In fact I had to drastically reevaluate my original projections of target times based on our morning conversation as he said he was aiming to finish in about 20 hours. Given his greater level of experience with such races I started to seriously question my original target of 18 hours, with that admittedly based purely on blog research and extrapolation. In the end even my own revised targets were way off, but more about that later.


Whilst I stuck with Victor for the first couple of clicks, once the climbing started to get significantly steeper I was acutely mindful of not blowing out my lungs and legs in the first 5km of the race and consciously dialed it back to a walk up the steeper slopes. As such, I let Victor press ahead and figured that I might see him again at one of the aid stations and if not then at the finish. In hindsight, having a run partner for this race; someone you can share the mental load with and you can swap pacing duties with, thus keeping each other pressing on, would have been incredible. As much as the sheer physical exertion ultimately bore me down, I do wonder how much faster I would have been and how much further I would have been able to push myself had I actually had someone alongside me, much as Elliot ended up doing in the Urban Ultra 50km race I did back in December of last year. It is a powerful motivator not wanting to let someone else down and those times when I felt that I had to walk, I wonder whether having someone else there relying on me to keep up the pace might have pushed me on. There is also the matter of keeping an eye on one another’s nutrition, as it is very easy to lose sight of how much fuel and/ or liquids one is actually taking on, often until it is too late to rectify any problems. Having someone check in with you about how much you’re eating and vice-versa might well reduce the risk of there being a shortfall in calorie intake and the inevitable crash in performance that such actions would lead to. Keeping mentally sharp is definitely one of the biggest challenges with racing long, especially over such tough terrain, and is, I know, one of THE biggest elements in determining ultimate success or failure. In hindsight I know I could have been tougher as there were sections where I should have been running but caved to how I was feeling and reverted to walking. Staying motivated in such situations is hard. Very very hard. Although there is an element of self-preservation that kicks in as well. I had this very conversation with a friend who also races long and their take on it was that they were intrinsically quite conservative when it came to really pushing themselves, such that they felt it helped them avoid pushing themselves to ultimate break point. I wonder whether that is perhaps how I also operate and is probably why I am never going to win any of these sorts of events – I simply don’t, or can’t, push myself THAT hard; the failsafe kicks in well before the break occurs. If so then I do not count that as a negative. Ultimately I saw no value in breaking myself and potentially making myself ill. My parents were heading over to have a holiday with me and being stuck in bed or unable to walk for the sake of pushing myself to the finish would not have been doing them or me any real favours. Besides, it is ultimately a recreational activity; something I choose to do for fun and not because I have to. Of course I wish to do well but not at any cost.

The following is a short Prezi presentation/ slide show that provides an account of my experience of each of the stages of the race – click ‘Present’ to start.
It was during the walk back that the storm clouds actually rolled over and the distant rumble of thunder soon became heavy rain where we were. My thoughts turned to how I might have made a different decision and would, at that very moment, likely be getting drenched on the exposed climb up the Männlichen, increasing the likelihood of actually making myself ill and writing off the second part of my holiday in Swizerland with my parents. Rather bow out gracefully at the halfway point and at least enjoy the next week rather than make it a write-off.

As it turned out the weather did end up impacting the E101, with the race officials opting to pause the race for about 3 hours later in the evening, and ultimately redirecting runners such that those who had been stopped – I’d have been one of them – ended up doing 80km rather than the full 101km. Whilst it would have still been a huge achievement, knowing that one had not completed the full distance yet receiving a medal for it would not have sat well and I feel that I might have found that more frustrating than electing to pull out when I did. One thing is for sure though: I want to return and I want to tackle the 101 again. Next time I will be better prepared, will train more specifically for it and absolutely ensure that I get a chance to acclimatise to the altitude. I know that I can do the distance.


It seems that for me, big goals seem to take me two years to realise, whether it be completing my first Ironman or gaining entry onto a top MBA programme. The Eiger 101, it would appear, is no different and so perhaps it was fated that I would not make the finish line this time around, thus compelling me to return and nail it the second time around. Who knows? The thing is I may not even secure an entry for next year given how unbelievably competitive the registration is – I will simply have to be ready when 10am on the 31st October 2018 comes around and keep my fingers crossed!


The rest of the trip was fantastic, from getting to watch the World Cup final with hundreds of others in Grindelwald on an outside screen, with the mountains as the backdrop, to revisiting First and part of the Eiger trail with my parents, river swimming in both Bern and Zurich, to being invited to enjoy a traditional Swiss raclette with new friends in Zurich. Switzerland is a small country, extremely expensive but with a quality of life for those who live there that seems unrivalled. Being outside and engaging both in physical activity and with nature, both in the winter and summer months, seemed to be completely normal, and it was impossible not to fall in love with this approach to life. Being out in the mountains was a gift and should I ever get the chance to spend time living in this little corner of heavenly terra firma then I would absolutely jump at it. Yet another reason to want to return to revisit the Eiger 101: Switzerland feels as though it is now in my blood.

Special thanks to Trace Rogers of GroWings for her expert coaching once again, and to Lee Harris, the maestro of trail and ultra running here in the UAE for all of his advice and the superb sessions he runs so generously.

Eiger 101 Post 10 – No Turning Back Now

As I write this I must confess that I am starting to get quite nervous. The Eiger 101 – the race that has been described as “harder than the UTMB” and what I have been training for over the past year – is less than one week out. Whilst I have now run a few ultras, including doing the Wadi Bih 72km race last year, the truth is that this going to be a whole different beast.

For starters it is over 100km in length – I have never run that far before in one go. Granted I have “done the distance” in terms of completing an Ironman or two, but it is very difficult to directly compare the two types of event. They’re just so different. However, I have got experience as a result of being “out in the field” for long periods of time. That will count as I anticipate/ hope to be able to complete the Eiger 101 in about 18 hours, which is what I have surmised is a respectable target time for a fit amateur, based on numerous blog readings. It is still a long old time being out there forging on under my own steam.

Then there is the altitude. I know from my Ironman Lake Tahoe experience that having the time to truly altitude adjust makes a colossal difference to performance on the day. It took me two weeks to properly adapt in Tahoe whereas I do not have that luxury for the Eiger. In fact I am due to arrive in Interlaken on Thursday, with the race kicking off on Saturday morning. In terms of altitude adjustment that is literally no time at all. So, I cannot really predict how the altitude is going to affect me. I do expect that my performance and energy levels will be about 20% less than where they could be were we racing at sea level, which, afterall, is where I have spent my training time. As such I will simply have to be careful, not push too hard and try and remain mentally sharp, which I think is going to be one of the main risks of this event.
Steep. So very steep!
The vertical elevation is one factor. Another is the sheer steepness and technicality of this course. The course profile looks like the ECG trace of someone who seriously needs to see a cardiologist! There are sections where the elevation gain is, on average, about 200m of gain for every 1 km run! That’s seriously steep and so I know my legs and lungs are going to be in for a pasting. Being a truly mountainous course there is lots of quite technical running as well, which when legs and brains are tired can lead to a much higher risk of making silly mistakes and tripping/ falling. Trying to remain sharp on the day, especially in the latter stages when fatigue will very much have set in, is going to be one of the major challenges of the day for me.

One of the potential advantages I may have is that I am coming from the harsh heat and humidity of Dubai and heading to the temperate climate of alpine Switzerland. I have definitely found with previous events that lining up for a race when the air temperature is comfortable after having done most of my training in what is often stressful conditions feels like I suddenly have a whole new burst of energy. I’m hoping that proves to be the case this weekend, such that the disadvantage of not being altitude adjusted is offset by the advantage of running in sensible conditions. We shall have to simply wait and see.

Some final thoughts before the race:
If you fancy tracking me during the race then you can follow the link below and search for my name. I do not yet know my race number so cannot provide that.

For more information on this awesome event, follow the link below to view the official website:

Eiger 101 Post 9 – Escape to Georgia

With a week off work, training to do and a strong desire to escape the relentless heat and humidity of the Middle East, especially with Ramadan taking place, I looked to potential destinations for a short trip away, with running being my key focus. The initial thought was to head back to Chamonix for some alpine running; a kind of appeasement to the heavy-duty hill-training gods that I have, to date, not been especially devout to. However, the combination of pricey flights, an abysmal weather forecast for the valley the week I intended to visit and a slew of trails that appeared, according to a couple of websites, to still be closed, I opted against it in favour of a destination markedly closer: Georgia.
Georgia, and it’s capital Tblisi, is a country that seems to be attracting a lot of interest, especially from tourists based here in the Gulf. For good reason too. I know scores of people who have visited and returned with nothing but glowing praise for the country, which at just three hours flight from Dubai with the local low-cost carrier feels like a no-brainer, especially given the promise of sensible temperatures whilst the Middle East bakes. Compared to Europe the cost of accommodation was also incredibly attractive and I was able to rent an entire two bedroom apartment in the picturesque and historic old town area of Tblisi for less than it would have cost me for a studio in Chamonix. Coupled with there being no need for a visa my mind was made: Tblisi, here I come!

As before in earlier posts I shan’t turn this into a lengthy travel-log, as to be quite frank there are scores of those online already, some significantly better than others. My focus for the week was really the running and it wasn’t clear until I actually arrived whether or not Tblisi was going to be an especially ‘run-friendly’ place. Of course I did some sight-seeing and the classic tourist things, such as join one of the ‘free’ walking tours – social pressure dictates that you tip the guide at the end, with the owner of the company retaining a healthy percentage of said tip, hence the inverted commas on the word free; a smart business strategy in my opinion – and indulged in the wonderful local cuisine and drink, specifically the wine, which Georgia is renowned for.
Another of the classically touristy activities I partook in was to get a sulphur bath and massage. Tblisi is famed for it’s natural sulphur springs and the supposedly healing qualities of the waters. Whilst I am glad I ticked that box I can’t say I especially enjoyed the experience. For starters it was relatively pricey, especially as the advice was to pay for a private room. This turned out to simply be two adjoined rooms, the first containing a couple of chairs, a table and not much else, with the second being the actual bath room, with a deep tub of hot, sulphurous water, a shower that provided more of the same water, and a marble slab upon which my massage and scrub was administered. There certainly was no focus on fine detail and grubby would be the word that I would use to describe the setting. True the spa I attended – one of the very central and more prominent establishments – did provide exactly what they advertised: sulphur water, but beyond that there was no attempt to refine the experience. I left after an hour feeling thirsty and aware of the vaguely eggy aura I had about me – remember, the shower in the room ran with sulphur water – and can’t say felt particularly rejuvenated. Still, it had to be done I guess, and the hot water was nice after the long run earlier that day.

So, back to the running. What of it? Well, road running was a challenge as a) the city is actually very compact, with very little in the way of reliable sidewalk availability. The longest stretch of continuous running I was able to do ended up being along the river as the sidewalk there did extend for about 8km before meeting a dead-end forcing me to about turn and head back to the city. The downside, however, was that it ran alongside a major road, with air pollution sadly being a constant feature. I’m not entirely certain how much health benefits there were to running that particular section as I was very aware of the fumes from the myriad engines as I ran. A real shame. One of the best areas, it transpired, to get some fresh air and some good, varied running in was the Botanical Gardens, tucked in the valley behind the castle and Mother of Georgia statue. Opening at 9am and costing just 2 Georgian Lari to enter, the gardens is more of an expansive national park, with a range of lovely trails, paved roads and a stunning central waterfall, framed by a picturesque bridge and a world away, it felt, from the hustle and bustle of the main city, whilst being mere minutes from the same.
An oasis in the city: the Tblisi Botanical Gardens
I can imagine that the rest of Georgia, with it’s expansive countryside and the mountains of the Kazbegi region, would be very good running territory and whilst I did not manage to venture out of Tblisi on this trip I would very much like to return to the country and do so. As a short break destination, Tblisi was wonderful, although as a running destination less so.