Category Archives: Sport & Fun

Eiger 101 – RACE REPORT

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

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


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


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


REGISTRATION & FIRST IMPRESSIONS

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

KIT

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


NUTRITION

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


RACE DAY

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

Eiger 101 Post 10 – No Turning Back Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eiger 101 Post 9 – Escape to Georgia

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

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

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

Eiger 101 Post 8 – Portugal Sun & Run

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

Picture postcard views everywhere in Lisbon
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.
The famous Tram 28 in Lisbon

Enjoying well earned pastéis de nata & ginjinja in Lisbon
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.
Incredible seafood was just one feature of Lisbon & Portugal

THE ALGARVE

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.
Stunning clifftop running in Lagos & the Algarve
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.
Stunning coastal town of Lagos, Portugal
A truly Mediterranean vibe in Lagos
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.

Eiger 101 Post 7 – The City of Runners: Boston

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.

Eiger 101 Post 6 – Running In The New Year

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!
Worth the climbing. Epic views in Granada, Spain
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.
Snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains made for an epic backdrop
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!

Eiger 101 Post 5 – UTX 50: Running out of 2017

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.
FINAL RESULT:
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!)
Team photo at the finish
Left: Elliot & I / Right: Louise, Pascal & I

Eiger 101 Post 4 – Excited by….. Socks?!

Following on from my previous post where I mentioned that I had placed an order for my very own set of Injinji trail socks, such were the incredibly positive reviews that seemed to be emanating from the wider ultra-marathon community when it came to the subject of blister prevention, I excitedly took delivery of the package that duly arrived from the US, where the company is based, and could not wait to head out for a run and test them out.

Getting in Touch with my Inner Ape

The first thing that really struck me about the Injinjis was the obvious fact that they have individual pockets for each toe, giving them the appearance of literally being a glove for the feet. Once on board and reconciled with the weirdness of their appearance – a simple side-effect of having always used and thus been pre-conditioned to ‘normal’ socks –  I proceeded to don them, finding it a little fiddly to ensure that each toe made it snugly and individually into it’s respective Coolmax polyester, Nylon & Lycra enclave. Given the relative fiddliness and additional time required to make sure they are fitted properly I doubt I’d be reaching for this type of sock for an event such as a triathlon, where my ability to transition quickly is already laughable. They were, however, very comfortable and, in my opinion, looked stylish with their orange and green colour combo!

Did They Work?

Whilst at the time of writing I am yet to really test them to the extreme at full ultra distances, over the shorter training runs that I have been out on the results have been convincing enough. Now maybe my feet have simply toughened up since I wrote last and the introduction of ‘posh performance socks’ has had zero impact but I suspect that protecting each toe individually and preventing that annoying toe-on-toe friction, especially toe-nail on toe that I was prone to, has made a big difference. My feet have exited my running shoes looking unscathed – a far cry from the blistery horror scene that seemed to greet me just a couple of weeks ago. I think if my feet could speak, which I guess technically they can on account of being attached to, well, me, they’d be saying, “good find bro!” So yeah, I guess it’s official: I am, or at least was, excited by socks. Ah, the headonistic rock and roll lifestyles of the ultra runner, eh!
You could say I am impressed
To get your own pair just head over to their website (nb: I am not in any way commercially connected to the company and have written this solely because I a) like their product, b) like writing and ultra-running, and c) like the thought of being able to help even just one other runner if and where I can): https://www.injinji.com/
(However, should anyone at Injinji HQ happen to be reading this and feel like they need a new brand ambassador then I’d throw my hat – or should that be socks – in the ring 🙂 You can, after all, just pay me in socks!)

Eiger 101 Post 3 – Happy Feet

I am on a bit of a rest week on account of being on the night shift. This essentially leaves little time for anything other than ‘work, eat, sleep, work again’ for a full seven days. I have, under instruction from Coach Trace, shoehorned a few very short runs in, which has probably been better for me than I realised at the time on account of ensuring that I at least get a little dose of vitamin D.
One of the perks of being on a less intense training week is that my feet have had a chance to recover, with my toes starting to resemble a normal person’s digits once again. Blisters, something that I never really suffered that badly with in the past, have been a pretty constant and unwelcome companion for the past few weeks, and has seen me scouring the web for advice on how best to reduce the risk of developing them and how to deal with those that do occur. Anyone who has suffered blisters knows full well how much they can scupper a good run and the last thing I want is to face the prospect of 100 km of unhappy feet – prevention is surely way better than a cure in this case.

Blister Treatment:

There are loads of really excellent articles available, many from seasoned ultra runners, that go into incredible detail on how to manage and treat blisters whilst out running and I intend to get myself stocked with the recommended supplies to add to my pack.
BLOG POSTS ON BLISTER/ FOOT CARE – the top 3 Google results for ‘ultra running, blister care’ (30th Nov 2017)

Blister Prevention:

This is what I am more interested in as I would rather not have to deal with pesky foot problems at all if I can help it. One piece of advice that seemed to crop up again and again in all the blog posts and articles I read about ultra-running was to invest in a pair of Injinji socks. The theory is that by encasing each toe in it’s own individual compartment there is less risk of the damaging toe-on-toe rubbing that so often occurs with normal socks. So, with thoughts of content feet I duly punched in the credit card info into their website and am, at the time of writing, awaiting delivery of four pairs of these apparent wonder garments. Lets see if they prove to be as awesome as reports suggest.

The Force In Dubai – Film Festival Premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Wednesday 8th December 2017 finally saw the culmination of a good week’s worth of personal effort as I finally got to don my Sith cloak, fire up the lightsabre and walk the red carpet with plenty of other local Star Wars fans here in Dubai. The 14th annual Dubai Film Festival closed this year with the regional premiere of the much anticipated latest instalment of Star Wars, with this year’s hot release being The Last Jedi, that picked up from precisely where The Force Awakens left off.
As soon as I saw that they were screening it at the festival I knew that I wanted tickets but had every expectation of it already being sold out, such is the usual demand for not only a Star Wars release but also a closing night gala screening. To my incredible excitement and surprise there were tickets up for grabs and grab a couple I did. To add to the sense of anticipation and occasion the organisers stated that they were encouraging fans to attend in fancy dress: magic words for me. I love fancy dress and if it’s a theme that involves a sword, whether standard or laser, as in Star Wars, then I am all over it! This was demonstrated clearly back in my uni days when I actually spent two weeks working closely with the head of the physics department workshop to create a real set of Trojan armour, including authentic brush helmet and sword, for a veterinary party weekend. That’s how into fancy dress I get.
So, with a little under a week to get a costume together, and with the stakes elevated by the announcement that there would be prizes on offer for the best, I set to thinking of what to go as and how to piece it all together, including the major question of what to do regarding a lightsabre. My first decision was to go as a Sith, as I tend to think that the darker characters are usually the most interesting and seem to have the best costumes. But who? Kylo Ren was the obvious choice and I figured that loads of people would be opting for him, in addition to his costume not actually being that interesting. Sure he has a badass helmet and a slightly more interesting lightsabre but there just wasn’t that ‘wow’ factor that I wanted. I then considered Anakin Skywalker, as he embraced the dark side. The costume looked simple enough, with the base looking to be a black, or very dark brown, martial arts suit, paired with a large central belt, some fancy looking leather strips that hung down over the shoulders and, of course, a Sith cloak and hood. I would also be needing boots, or be able to fashion something that looked like boots. Some intial sketching and web research revealed the basic design and I even considered a wacky idea to augment the costume, and add to the overall theatric effect, by rigging up a small Yoda soft toy on the end of a clear length of plastic tubing, or the like, and attach it to my wrist somehow so as to appear as though I was making Yoda levitate by way of the force! I imagined the effect would be quite striking as well as being relatively simple to pull off.
As is often the case with creative pursuits one tends to tumble down the rabbit hole and new and more interesting ideas sometimes spring up where the previous ones were fulminating. So it was that as I was researching ‘sith costumes’ online I came across an image of Darth Revan, from the Old Republic series. In an instant I knew that he was the character I wanted to replicate: a bad ass, mask-wearing ninja-style warrior complete with his awesome cloak and lightsabre. Done! Now I just needed to figure out what to get in order to achieve the most authentic look possible.
Darth Revan (middle)

MASK:

Darth Revan’s mask is quite unique, as can be seen from the pictures. Whilst everything I needed could, in principle, be ordered online I simply didn’t have the time to wait and, besides, there is way more pride to be gained from actually making something as opposed to simply buying it. Several video tutorials ran through how to construct a costume version and so equipped with a supply of craft foam, spray paint, elastic (recycled from an old Emirates airlines eye mask), a hot glue gun, superglue, black plastic and imagination I managed a pretty decent job if I do say so myself. The only thing I would change were I do make another is to either find some less opaque pastic for the visor or cut some very thin spaces through it so I could see more than just shadows. The visual effect was awesome but I couldn’t really see a damned thing!

LIGHTSABRE:

This was one of my proudest creations and whilst I could very easily have purchased a toy I wanted something that felt more realistic. Again, there were loads of online videos providing detailed instructions of how to make your own but all of them required a fully functioning workshop, electronics and more time than I had available. I didn’t need my lightsabre to make any noise or be so closely replicant of the ones in the films – all I really needed and wanted was something that lit up red and looked badass!
The answer came to me as I was browsing in Deira and a guy tried to upsell me on a torch that I really didn’t need. The shape of it – long, thin and black – suddenly looked to me like a pretty convincing lightsabre handle and when I inspected it, removing the head to discover that it had a powerful single bright LED at the end I knew that I had my base. All I needed to do was add a length of acrylic tubing and somehow create a red light instead of the bright white of the torch, and I would have a very convincing laser sword. But where to get the materials? My first thought was Ace Hardware in Dubai but after a previous visit to source some basic materials that did not leave me impressed I looked for alternatives. The answer came in the form of a company called Accurate Acrylics LLC based in Al Quoz. Seeing that they were open at 8am I popped over one Saturday morning before I was due to start work and was introduced to the manager, Sadyajit, who humored me as he listened to my mad cap request – the fact that I had the torch and pictures of what I was aiming to achieve surely helped. Lo and behold they were able to help and so an order was placed for a single length of 35mm diameter clear acrylic plus an end piece to seal the far end of the lightsabre. The cost? A mere 100AED. Sadyajit also arranged for it to be cut so that it would, in theory, slide snugly into place over the end of the torch base.
The basic design for my Sith lightsabre.
The piece was perfect, although I later discovered that I also needed to create a small hole on the reverse to enable the torch to be recharged once it was all put together, a minor roadblock that was overcome though application of a gas hob, a pointy-ended knife and time enough to slowly melt a hole where it was needed. For the color effect I used red packing film that I rolled several times and slid inside the entire length of the tubing, so as to diffuse the light produced by the LED into the desired level of red. A neat hint I gleaned from the online tutorials was to back the end disc with a reflective material, such as tin foil, so as to reflect back the light travelling up the tube, thus ensuring a realistic lightsabre effect. This was certainly a key design feature and really helped create the desired outcome. The final touch was to embellish the power button with some red craft foam, raising it such that I could switch the lightsabre on and off easily and adding some more color to the design. One of the advantages of constructing it the way I did was that it had a weight to it that really added to the impression of it being a real device, very similar to the Trojan sword that made part of my costume all those years before.

BOOTS:

I don’t own boots and couldn’t find anything that was either in my size or that wasn’t for women in Deira. What I did do was to pair a relatively cheap pair of black men’s zipped shoes with my horseriding calf-chaps. The latter I had to fabric paint black, a step that saw me go through an entire can of black fabric spray paint – leather, it seems, really does soak up paint well – and required a few solid days of drying before they could be worn.

BASE LAYER:

Most of the pictures I had seen of Darth Revan showed him wearing a dark full length tunic and I imagined that a very dark grey or black kandura would have substituted for the same perfectly. However, finding one in Deira proved to be incredibly difficult and after the umpteenth “no” and shake of the head from the vendors I spoke with I did start to wonder whether the reason they were claiming it wasn’t possible was that it might be somehow considered disrepectful to use one as part of a costume(?). My second thought, that being that an abaya would actually be even better, was quickly resigned to the mental “no way” file and so I decided to slightly alter the Darth Revan base by going a bit more Anakin Skywalker for that part. This essentially meant a trouser-tunic combo as the base, with the rest of the costume built around that.
I found a great Indian-style long sleeved top in Deira that had the classic look I was after and simply paired it with a loose pair of athletic training bottoms to give that combat effect. Darth Revan wears armour and if I had more time then I am certain that I would have found a way to create both the breast plate and wrist plates out of metal. Given the time constraints, however, I once again turned to the craft foam for their construction. The centrepiece of the costume was a central ring, that hangs from the main belt and that in turn has both a red length of silky fabric cascading towards the floor and a black length of similar material that wraps around the body. As I said before, the overall look is one of an ornately battle-dressed ninja, even down to the absence of any skin showing. This effect was achieved by wearing gloves and my black snood, that I wore up over my head such that when the mask was worn there was nothing but black showing. Very Sith indeed! In terms of where to get the central ring from I had initially thought to head to a plumbing store to buy a towel rack ring, as I imagined it would be about the right size. As it turned out what I actually found was actually a large seal for a a valve in an oil rig, or at least that’s what the guy in Al Quoz who looked very confused as he sold it to me said. Being bright red also added to its appeal as the flashes of red in my costume really contrasted brilliantly with the overall sense of black and paired brilliantly with the red glow of the lightsabre.

FINISHING TOUCHES:

As much as I had initially wanted to create my own Sith cloak and hood, even purchasing a decent amount of material in the process, the fact is I ran out of time to get anything tailored and so I bit the bullet and purchased a costume version. It did the trick and I attached it to my armor with the use of tiny climbing clips in much the same way that I saw it was in all of the pictures I saw of Darth Revan.
I knew that I was not going to wear the mask the entire night and so in the interests of paying attention to detail I decided to apply some dark side of the force inspired eye makeup, blacking them up and smearing it down my face. This lent me a haunted, dark look that was absolutely in keeping with the entire ethos of the costume.
Sith eye makeup added to the dark effect when the mask was not worn
The overall effect was, in my own estimation, pretty awesome and when I first switched on the lightsabre and saw it’s deep red, eery glow in combination with the entire costume I felt that thrill of excitement and satisfaction that comes from putting something awesome together.

The Show Itself

I really enjoy the Dubai Film Festival and have been fortunate enough to attend gala screenings on more than one occasion. The venue – just adjacent to Souk Madinat – is superbly glitzy and they always do a fantastic job of setting up the screening room, with this year being no different as the room sparkled, literally, and treated film goers to extremely comfortable seats.
I arrived relatively early and chose to jump out of my cab just before the venue, meaning that those driving along Beach Road were the first to see my costume in all it’s Sith glory. One thing I did discover quite early on was that I had to be careful walking, as the red sash was very easy to step on and I nearly went A over T a couple of times. If I walked a little like John Wayne then it seemed to be ok though. I caught sight of a few other cosplayers on the way in, with a guy in a tux and a Darth Vader mask one standout, as well as a couple of Jedis, a couple of Kylo Rens – obviously – and a few girls channeling Rey. Rather than go straight through and soak up the red carpet atmosphere immediately I waited a while for my friend, Kaiya, to join me, although when it became apparent that she was delayed made the decision to meet her inside rather than miss the big walk through.
I did realise fairly quickly just how little I could actually see through my mask’s visor as I trod the carpet and suspect I may have missed a few more interview and photo requests than I actually received. One guy, from Gulf News I believe, stopped me early into the walk to ask where I was from and who I had come as, in addition to taking a photo, which I took the opportunity to brandish my lightsabre for. I found the corresponding Twitter post a couple of days later, although it turned out that he seemed to have gotten his guys from the UK and Star Wars characters well and truly mixed up as I was reported to have been “Rob” from the UK and to have come as “Darth Vader.” Err….no, not quite mate.
One thing that I did end up feeling a bit bummed about was that because I was a bit late into the gala I ended up missing, or being missed, by those who were judging the costumes. This I surmised from the fact that shortly after the introduction speeches were given they announced the winners and not being arrogant or ‘owt but my costume was significantly more impressive than most of those that won, especially the eventual winner who – surprise, surprise – came as Kylo Ren. As much as it wasn’t all about the competition – just getting to attend and enjoy both the film and dressing up was awesome enough – the prizes were pretty great, with the top four or five each getting one of those awesome little Sphero BB8 programmable robots. Nice. Still, you win some, you lose some 🙂
The film itself, screened in 3D, which was actually brilliant, was one of the best Star Wars episodes so far and suffice to say that it was very well received, with the 2.5 hours running time flying by like a Poe Damaron piloted X-Wing. I won’t run into a full blown review of the film though as there are about a zillion online already and, to be honest, you’re better off just going to watch it yourself. Do make sure that you’ve seen The Force Awakens first though as it follows on immediately from that one.
One of the most fun moments of the evening was actually the slow walk out, as it was then that both Kaiya and I got to feel like film stars as we were asked to pose in various photos. Whilst I am an introvert in spirit, when I get a decent character costume on I am happy to enthusiatically play a role 🙂 We even got to be interviewed by a movie channel as our very final act before hopping in a taxi and bringing the evening to an end. The lightsabre, mask and cloak are now hung up for a year when I hope to dust them off, re-channel the force and tread the red carpet once again as a Sith.

Some more photos from the event:

We were interviewed on our walk along the red carpet
One of the joys of the premiere was getting to walk the red carpet