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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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 🙂
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 🙂
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! 🙂
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have said in previous posts how much I love the fact that running is something that one can do anywhere; all you need, essentially, are a good pair of shoes, a sense of adventure and curiosity and away you go. Exploring a new city or area under your own steam on foot is often one of the best ways to truly get a sense for a place. That and the fact that most runners get up and pound the pavement or trails before the majority of the world has risen tends to mean that a completely different, more honest side of life is see in whatever locale one might find themselves.
Lisbon was the destination for a long overdue boys weekend with a few old friends from university and balancing the demands of training with ensuring that I was able to join in the fun of a weekend away was not really as tricky as I perhaps imagined it might. The days of crazy nights out on the town are, truth be told, behind us and the latest we all stayed out was, to be honest, about 1am and that was due to us sitting in a restaurant enjoying good food, wine and conversation as opposed to painting the town red in a club. As such getting up and out early in the morning for some training runs was not as tough as I thought it might have been.
We arrived in Lisbon in the dark and so did not really get a true sense of the beauty of the city on the drive to our AirBNB in the Chiado neighbourhood. Our apartment, situated on the top floor of a classic Portuguese building down a narrow street close to the Convento do Carmo, was one of the best AirBNB experiences I have had to date, with our host showing us into a stunning abode that made a hotel suite look a little shabbily appointed, before giving an incredibly detailed overview of the city and drawing our attention to the welcome gifts of a classic Portuguese pastel de nata each and a bottle of port, which we promptly polished off following an incredible introduction to the cuisine of the city at an old monastery turned beer hall and restaurant, Cervejaria Trinidade, just around the corner. If the quality of the steaks and beer that we enjoyed on that first evening were any guide then it was set to be a well-fuelled weekend of training indeed!
Whilst my three friends slept in I did what any self-respecting trail runner does when in the presence of non-runners and crept around the house like a ninja, trying my best not to wake anyone up before turning towards the waterfront and spending the next 20km enjoying the freedom of stretching my legs as I headed off towards the Atlantic, passing under the Ponte de 25 Abril, the Golden Gate Bridge clone that spans the River Tagus, before turning around at the Torre de Belem to return home. Portugal enjoys almost year-round sunshine and that first morning was no exception, with azure blue skies, a light breeze and an unobstructed view of the city to keep me pushing on. The run along the waterfront took me past several marinas, museums and galleries, and with the water literally next to me the air was as fresh as it could possibly be, a rare treat after the increasingly stifling humidity of Dubai.
With the biggest run of the weekend complete I scaled the rather lengthy climb back to our apartment to find my friends all up and enjoying coffee. Perfect timing so that after a quick shower it was immediately into tourist mode and the vitally important task of the breakfast search, such are the difficult choices one has to make when on vacation.
Lisbon is a stunning city and to be honest it would be easy to spend the next twenty paragraphs waxing lyrical about what we saw, did, ate and experienced, but I shall resist the temptation. The highlights, however, included a fascinating tuk-tuk tour of the city that took in all of the key areas and sights, an option we jumped on following an aborted attempt to see the city via the famous tram 28. The food was exquisite, although there were two consecutive evenings that provided very different experiences of Lisbon seafood, the first involving cuttlefish. Suffice to say we finished strong, enjoying one of the finest meals I have had the pleasure of enjoying in a long time on our final evening in the city.
Following the end of our Lisbon stay, the boys all headed back to the UK whilst I, having traveled a lot further to be in the country, had extended my stay and so picked up a hire car at the airport before striking out south to the Algarve. As such, the second half of my holiday in Portugal was a slightly different experience of the country, exchanging international city for picture postcard beaches, towering cliffs and seaside fishing towns.
My base for the next few days was Lagos, about as far away from it’s Nigerian namesake as one can imagine, with my hotel being nothing more than a short stroll from several Instagram-worthy beaches, tucked into pretty little coves accessed by snaking staircases that wound down the vertigo-inducing cliffs that frame this part of the coast. The wealth of running options was extensive and my training sessions saw me criss-cross the narrow streets of the town itself, take in the fishing harbour and wide promenade that continued up the hill following the old city wall, whilst also getting some great training in by running the entire length of the expansive sandy beach that links Lagos and neighbouring Alvor. Nothing beats the sound of a gently lapping ocean against the soft repetitive rhythm of feet on firm-enough-to-run sand, with a refreshing breeze and the sight of families enjoying the amazing scenery and fun of the beach. It is moments like the ones I enjoyed running in the Algarve that make running such a pleasure.
From the steady endurance effort of long, flat beaches to the more cardio-intense demands of the undulating cliffs that I also ran along, this part of Portugal really did feel like a trail runners’ dream-come-true. I had initially planned to get up really early one morning, still in the dark, in order to get my long run done and dusted before breakfast, but was very glad I chose to wait until daylight once I saw a) how incredibly steep and high the cliffs were, and b) just how perilously close to them it is possible to actually run. Combined with some strong gusts of wind it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine how easy it would have been to do an accidental lemming impression! Besides, the views were infinitely more impressive in the daylight. Talking of views, one of my primary reasons for choosing to head to the Algarve, in addition to the promise of some great running, was to do a few jumps at Skydive Algarve. Whilst I only did two jumps in total they were certainly worth my time as nothing was going to be able to top the view of the entire area that comes from being at 13,000 feet, especially when free falling between and through clouds in the process. Stunning. Just stunning.
Once again, I feel truly blessed to be able to don my running shoes, grab my passport and enjoy exploring another new place from the perspective of a trail runner. Looking forward to the next.
I love to run in new places as it is often one of the very best ways to get to explore a new location and observe those little details that make it fascinating. I have already had the pleasure of running in Spain recently and so it was with excitement that I packed up my running gear once again, including the much needed cold-weather layers, and jetted off to Boston, USA. My primary purpose for a visit to the city was to speak at a Virtual Reality conference, specifically on the subject of VR in Veterinary, but I extended my stay for the week in order to explore it fully. It has long been on my list of places to visit, appealing as it does to my inner nerd, what with such prestigious landmarks as Harvard and MIT representing the epitome of geeky culture. It is, of course, also the setting for one of the premier running events of the calendar, namely the Boston Marathon. As such I knew that it was bound to be a runners’ city and I was not disappointed.
During the planning phase of the trip I looked into both suggested runs in the city, with the classic Charles River loop coming out on top, and also sought out some groups that I might be able to join for one or two runs, thus injecting a little social experience into my pavement pounding. The group that caught my attention was the Heartbreak Hill Runners, an enthusiastic and, as I soon discovered, large group of runners of all levels that meet for regular sessions, congregating out of one of the group’s several shops. The session I joined in with was their weekly Saturday morning long run, which happened to coincide nicely with my own training schedule mandated long run. Bonus! Getting out to the start point was a bit of a mission as it was located in the suburbs of Boston, specifically Newton, and for some reason the metro that morning was on super duper slow mode, with a replacement bus having to be used for part of the journey. Instead of being super early, as had been my intention, I ended up having to jog from the final metro station to the shop, although we didn’t actually set off for a little while longer.
Situated on a corner, the Heartbreak Hill Runners shop was modest in size but packed with not only an impressive array of running merchandise but was crammed with people! I had not expected there to be quite so many in attendance and was even more impressed when I was given a wristband after registering – this apparently entitled me to make use of the aid stations that were put on – and had the option to leave my bag in a secure part of the store while we all ran. All very organised indeed. After a briefing from head coach and owner Dan – most people there were in the final weeks of training for the Boston marathon – we were encouraged to shuffle outside, find our respective pacers and to get going. I was expecting just a casual small group run but what it seemed to be was a very well organised mass event – this truly did seem to be the city of runners, an impression that was further reinforced by the fact that there were clearly lots of other groups out training as well, in addition to loads of other aid stations, complete with cheering spectators and supplies. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that even the supporters seemed to train for the Boston marathon!
The looped course took us up Heartbreak Hill, along the edge of the nearby reservoir and past Boston College, before taking in another long, steady climb and a relatively flat, fast return to the shop. Many of those running were due to do 3 hours of continuous running, meaning multiple loops. As tempted as I was to join them in this pursuit I only had a half marathon distance pencilled in and so after scaling Heartbreak Hill and reaching Boston College for the second time I about-turned and returned to the shop. Feeling buoyed by my efforts and loving the general atmosphere of the shop, the team and the whole morning I felt compelled to purchase a couple of awesome T-shirts, designed there in Boston by a couple of runners, snapped a couple of pics and even had the honour of making it onto their famous wall of mugshots 🙂
Having experienced the feeling of being a runner in Boston on a normal week I can only begin to imagine how electric the atmosphere must be for the annual marathon. Who knows: perhaps I shall be back someday to find out first-hand.
The beauty of running is that it is possible to pretty much do it anywhere. The equipment requirements are essentially very simple: a pair of decent running shoes and some suitable athletic apparel, because lets be honest no one is going to be heading out for a training run wearing their travel suit, are they?! When preparing for a race such as the Eiger 101 it is important to keep up the training regardless of where I find myself and whether or not I am on holiday. So it was the case at Christmas as I headed out of Dubai and flew to Spain – specifically Granada to start – for the week encompassing Christmas itself and including my dad’s birthday. With triathlon I would have fretted about the logistics of being able to get in some bike training and finding the closest pool so as to keep up the swim programme. Not so with running. All I needed to pack were my runners, including my trail shoes because, who knows, perhaps I’d find some good off-road options, and a couple of slightly warmer layers more than I’d normally don for Dubai-based training. Simple and it meant that the ‘athletic endeavours’ compartment of my packing took up a tiny corner of my suitcase as opposed to needing to lug around a bike box!
So what of the running in Spain itself? Given that it was December and we were up in the mountains, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada range, it was cold. There were, however, just two days when one could describe conditions as wet and so the bulk of my running was conducted in chilly crisp air with bright blue skies and sunlight, making me very grateful that I packed the trusty Oakleys alongside leggings. Granada offered a feast of options, both visually and physically as I had the option to run flat, following the river in both directions, with landscape painting quality views of the distant snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, or take to the steep climbs up into historic neighbourhoods, or barrios, like Albaícin or the climb up to the famous landmark of la Alhambra, the medieval hilltop fort that is Granada’s enduring image. With steps, pedestrians, narrow streets and generally lots of little features of interest to pay close attention to, road running in Granada did have more in common with a true trail run than a plodding, steady road run, with the need to vary pacing, stride length and effort regularly. This made for both physically and mentally rewarding runs. Being able to head out at any time of the day due to high temperatures not being a concern was also a welcome blessing.
One of the most memorable runs I completed was towards the end of my stay in the city as I struck out along the river, following the path as it left the main city, becoming more and more rural and eventually transitioning to a narrow trail. I opted to turn back once the path became both too narrow and too muddy, retracing my steps into Granada before taking a right that led me through the centre, weaving between strolling pedestrians on their morning commute, before climbing steadily toward Albaícin. I love those runs when you just feel so good that the thought of sticking to ‘the programme’ and bringing that feeling of flow to a premature end seems wrong, disrespectful almost, and so it was this thought that drove my legs and body up and up right to the top of the hill on which the small church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto was situated. Due to it being a fairly cold and damp morning I was one of only three people present and so was able to enjoy the panoramic view out over the city unobstructed and in peace. Well worth the climb up!
From Granada I parted with my parents at Malaga airport, them returning to the UK whilst I flew up to Madrid, where I spent New Years with my girlfriend and other Madrid-based amigos. The running in Madrid is as good as that in Granada, and once again, I was blessed to be able to run at any time of the day without the fear of heat exhaustion or sun stroke, and with both the city to explore and the expanses of the various parks, such as Parque del Retiro, and the huge Casa de Campo, I was in runners’ nirvana!
People often describe life’s journey as a rollercoaster. The same can absolutely be applied to an ultramarathon as one most certainly experiences fabulous highs and descents into lows before almost as quickly ascending to new heights. So it was for my last big athletic push of 2017: the UTX 50, organised and staged by the fantastic Urban Ultra team.
The day started as most do when you’re into weird things like running very very long distances for fun: in the dark and far earlier than most humans would consider sane. With my race pack having been picked up a couple of days before and the requisite bits of mandatory kit acquired, nutrition and the various items of clothing I may well have needed during the day were carefully packed into my car before I started the long, somewhat hazy drive out towards Ras Al Khaimah and the pin-pointed location of the race setting. Thank goodness for Google Maps is all I can say as without it I sincerely doubt i’d have made it to the start line. As I followed the digital line on my phone’s map display off the main highway and onto an altogether narrower, more sandy roadway I soon became grateful for the fact that the organisers had remembered that not everyone in the UAE drives a 4WD. Having said that I reached a point where it became clear that to proceed may well have meant risking getting stuck in the very soft sand that the road had transitioned to, especially as I had already seen one runner do just that after taking the wrong one of two options at a forked junction. The race site, I was informed by a couple who had opted to camp overnight, was just a hundred metres on and thus easily walkable.
One thing that many people find hard to get their heads around, especially after the stifling heat and relentless humidity of the summer months is the fact that in winter it does actually get pretty darned cold, especially out in the desert. As such, getting changed into my running gear was a nippy affair and I was glad to be able to don my snood and Patagonia base layer before grabbing my CamelPak, with nutrition stowed away, and head torch before making my way over to registration. Quite a few people had, it turned out, managed to drive to the main site – the road into camp was actually passable by normal cars; these things often only become apparent after the fact – and when I arrived the music was pumping, lights were on and the inflatable arch of the start and finish line was clearly visable, with registration just to the side of it. Signed in and with at least forty minutes to go until the start I opted to head back to the car and hunker down with a book rather than freeze by standing around idly. I’d have more than enough time to spend on my feet come the actual race!
The trail and ultra scene out here is a relatively small one and so the same faces tend to pop up at most events, which makes for a really nice, familial or collegiate atmosphere. So it was as many of the Dubai Trail Runners, including head honcho, Lee, filtered into the start line huddle, exchanging greetings and comments on how chilly it was, before we were given the briefing and placed under starters orders. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….FOGHORN!” We were off, with the eventual race winners striking up an impressive pace from the get-go whilst I found myself comfortably towards the front but in no way pushing for any kind of heroic lead. Not in this race and not generally in this sport – I respect the distance too much and recognise my own limits at present. Besides, we first of all had about 3km of sand and dunes to traverse before the more traditional trail running ensued and based on my limited experience of dune running I know how tough it can be and so wished to conserve energy as much as I was able. One thing that fairly rapidly became clear was that I could easily have done without the base layer as within about five minutes of dune-climbing effort I was well and truly ‘warmed up’ and would have jettisoned it early on had I been ok to stop. Instead I elected to push on at a steady pace before making the final breathtakingly beautiful descent down the last big dune, with the sun now making an appearance and illuminating the dunes and mountains of the area, and stopped at the bottom, where the hard track started, in order to pack away my base-layer, sand gaiters and lamp and catch a much needed breath before the main section of the day kicked off.
I can’t really say that I had any real strategy for the day other than to remember not to push it too hard in the early stages as tempting as it may have been, and to remember to remain hydrated and adequately fed, both of which are surprisingly easy to forget to do, especially in cooler conditions. I had intended to listen to some music as a way of ‘zoning out’ during the race but found myself foregoing that option in favour of simply enjoying my surroundings, brief conversations with fellow runners and to pay close attention to both the trail – an important way to reduce the risk of stumbles, falls, ankle twists and all of the other ridiculously simple to occur happenings that can befall a trail runner, especially when tired – and my general surroundings, both of which were beautiful. The first section of trail after the dunes took us out of the ‘countryside’ and into an area of housing, meaning a section of paved road running, where we came upon the first aid station – I elected not to stop at this as still had plenty of water and was feeling in a good flow state so wished to capitalise by continuing on. After that the trail took us into a narrow section of wadi before opening up into a wider, more isolated, or wilder area of proper wadi where we found ourselves for about the next 10 km. I found the initial 20 km to be comfortable and was able to maintain a steady pace that saw me overtake a few people, although I also had several people pass me in turn. My feet were feeling good and I once again thanked good fortune that I had discovered Injinji and their incredible socks as they seemed to be my saving grace as far as looking after my feet was concerned.
After the second aid station, which was positioned in a picturesque little farming village and at which I did make a stop, enjoying the orange slices on offer, I did start to feel my legs a little more and on the steeper sections of short climbing elected to walk. I also stopped for a few minutes, not out of fatigue but because the narrow path that climbed up behind and between some buildings had on one side stables and out of two of the open windows popped the heads of some stunning horses. I couldn’t ignore them and so stopped to say hello, enjoying the interaction with my new equine buddies, only spurred on by the voices of another two runners scaling the path behind me. From there the road wound up and down and around the farming community, with cute little stone buildings surrounding cultivated and terraced fields of lush green crops flanked by the razer tipped peaks of the UAE mountains surrounding us. The start of the final descent of this section was marked by a rusty iron gate and once through it was a knee-pounding run down towards a long, straight, somewhat demoralising stretch of main highway running that seemed to coincide with the start of the day’s heat. I was ok for about the first half of this particular section but then felt myself hitting up against a bit of a wall before caving in to temptation and choosing to walk for a bit. A short walk was soon extended at the next to a longer walk and if it were not for the heroic efforts of one runner, Elliot Lewis, and his words of encouragement as I then ran the next twenty or so kilometres with him, I would have had a truly miserable experience and succumbed to the spectre of walking most of the rest of the race. Ultra marathons mess with your head. They’re long enough that to get through them in one piece does require constant thinking, reassessments, personal pep-talking and it is so easy for those voices of doubt to start creeping into your head before screaming at you to ‘just take it easy for a bit’ that they become hard to ignore. It may have been that some decent, motivational music would have helped at this stage, but I had a better option: another runner to keep me motivated and going. That’s another thing I do love about this sport – very rarely do you encounter a selfish athlete who is just interested in themselves and their own race. Most runners genuinely look out for their fellow race-goers and do what they can if they see someone struggling. Did my companion sacrifice some time in order to run with me? I don’t know but the point is that instead of silently cruising past me and leaving me to trudge the trails alone he made the decision to step up to the mark and be the guardian angel that I needed at that particular moment. For that I humbly thank him.
From the prospect of another thirty kilometres of painfully dull trudging in the heat I was instead in the much better position of finding myself approaching the final aid station, just 10km out from the finish, and at this point I felt strong enough to start to up the ante and pace. With the blessing of my running companion for the last 20km I struck out on my own once more and soon found myself rattling along at a blistering pace. What I should have recognised, however, was that it was too fast to be sustained and crushingly after about 5km I found myself hitting yet another wall and once more reduced to a walk-run regime as I gritted my teeth and willed the final few kilometres to pass. Those final few K’s were tough and there were several moments when I found myself talking out loud, admonishing myself for being arrogant and pushing off too hard from the aid station. If i’d maintained better control then I would have found a steady, sustainable pace and been able to at least run the entire final 10km. Still, one learns with every event. One thing I was determined NOT to do was walk over the finish line. Nah! Not going to happen. I was absolutely going to run that and so with the final 1.5km to go I dug in, willed my aching and leaden legs into action and focused on thoughts of the end. The trail entered an area of dunes and so I knew I was close, in addition to the fact that my Suunto told me the same thing, and then out to the right, in the distance I could see the runner ahead of me, Scott, turning into what I knew must have been the finishing chute, a narrow gully between two rocky outcrops that funnelled us to the end. That was all the motivation I needed to be able to punch the metaphorical biological nitrous button and sprint! It’s always amused and frustrated me in equal measure how no matter how done in you are during a race there always seems to be that small reserve of energy that is kept back especially for sprinting to the finish line. A little like always being able to find space for dessert. I could see Lee up on the rock and gave him a thumbs up as I rounded the final corner, saw the archway and locked in. It was done. 50km of running was over and another ultramarathon notched up. I gratefully took receipt of my wooden medal – a nice environmentally friendly spin on the usual metal offering – and waddled over to the gazebo where I earnestly accepted the offer of Coca Cola and some delicious soup! Just what was needed after nearly six hours of being out pounding the trails.
With some sustenance on board and my pack laid to rest I felt significantly better, joining the other runners to have finished in cheering our fellow racers across the line and enjoying the plentiful photo opportunities. One final group pic snapped, with the Urban Ultra goat taking centre stage, and it was back to the car and ultimately Dubai. My best laid plans of a relaxing evening of movie watching and feet up leisure quickly became a case of falling asleep on the sofa and thus marked the end of yet another fun filled yet tough day out on the athletic scene here in the UAE.
Finished in 5 hours, 38 mins and 9 seconds
17th place overall and 12th in my category.
(The winning time was 4’14”59! Staggeringly speedy!)
The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!