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!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
Click here to visit the Eiger Ultra website & learn more about this epic event.
Some of the great blog posts I have had the pleasure to find & read since signing up to the Eiger 101, with some of the key take-aways summarised:
- Felt long – closer to 120km based on his watch
- Very vertical!
- Use poles
- Don’t go in with any mental baggage
- Did it in about 18 hours
- Views are just breathtaking!
- Tough race – a full THIRD of the 600 runners who started DNF’d!
- Lots & lots of mental toughness required!
- Injinji socks – NO BLISTERS
- Take a camera
- A real sense of ‘togetherness’
- Lots of concentration required – high alpine trails & not well groomed
- Electrolytes important
- Harder than the UTMB!
With sub-60 minute times posted in the past, the Ras-al-Kaimah (RAK) Half Marathon is marketed as the fastest half in the world, and it certainly lived up to that as I came in under my target time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, a personal best by a long margin.
The day started very early indeed, with a 3.15am alarm and a very bleary early breakfast before loading up the car and scooting off to make three pick-ups in and around the Marina. My fellow runners for the day were Jan, a fellow tri-Pirate, Katia, a friend whom I met during the wadi camping trip, and Lauren, who I have been running with in preparation for today and, in eight weeks, her first London Marathon. The drive itself was simple and traffic free meaning that we arrived with good time to spare. As such, there was time aplenty to make the obligatory loo stop – an essential pre-race ritual, as I am sure any athlete would agree – as well as get some more breakfast, and even dash back to the car to apply the all-important Vaseline. Those of you who may choose to snigger at the mention of said lubricant would think again if you had just run 21km, as it is, in my opinion, one of the most useful and important bits of athletic kit there is, saving many a runner, and cyclist alike, from suffering painful chafing. There, I said it: chafing.
The RAK half is very well organised, with a dedicated baggage drop, organised such that belongings are dropped off in the official bags provided, and even post-race printed certificates on offer. Despite the delayed start to the race, meaning that we did have to endure longer than was necessary of being literally deafened by the announcer, everyone was in great spirits as the conditions for the race were perfect: little to no breeze, cool temperatures and a nice wide, flat course, clearly marked and with plenty of drinks stops along the way.
Once the race got under way, I chose to get into the rhythm with The Rolling Stones greatest hits album, in preparation for their gig next week, and quickly established a good comfortable rhythm, finding the first twelve or so kilometers actually pretty cruisey. In fact, I found myself overtaking fellow triathletes that I didn’t really feel as though I had any place passing, which did make me feel a little concerned at one point that maybe I was pushing a little too hard early on and that I might have been due a brick wall to hit. As it turned out that was not the case and I maintained a relatively steady average pace of 4:20 per km right the way up until the 14th kilometer, before stepping on the gears in order to still be in stead to hit my target time.
The first 5km were comfortable and I clocked 25minutes for that – a pretty standard, unimpressive performance. The second 5km, taking us to 10km, was similarly comfy and was, in fact, faster, being completed in a little over 21 minutes. Looking at my splits I did actually get faster and faster as the race progressed, with the third 5km being even quicker at a little over 20 minutes, and the final 5km being run in under 20 minutes, which I am so pleased with. At about 16km I just put my head down, gritted my teeth and went for it, knowing that I had to dig really deep in order to bring home the sub 90 minute time I was so desperate to achieve. The final 700m were tough – I mean, real tough – and I put everything in to cross the line no less than 8 seconds under the 1 hour 30 minute target. To say I was elated is an understatement. The result was a huge vindication of the merits of all the training to date and having a good, solid race preparation and plan in place, something that I am realising more and more to be so important.
The post-race meet up with friends, who had all also run really great times, was awesome fun, and after getting the essential post-race photos, we all piled in the car to head over to the Tower Links golf course for a hearty breakfast to fortify us for the journey back to Dubai, and a well earned afternoon of doing very little other than putting my feet up.
A great race and a fantastic personal result. I am feeling even more buoyed and confident for Lake Tahoe in September. I will just need to ensure I keep up a high level of running fitness over the summer. I would certainly recommend anyone to sign up and do the RAK Half Marathon, whether it be your first ever half or you’re a seasoned runner.
Finish time (net) = 1:29:52
Finish position (net) = 130 (out of a total field of 1831 runners who started the race (in the top 7%)
Gender position (net) = 105th
73rd out of 930 UAE residents.
59th out of 613 UAE male residents.
6th of 45 UAE runners in my specific age group, and 34th out of 270 Brits racing.