Tag Archives: trail

Whistler 50 2018 – Race Report

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

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

Initial Apprehension

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

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

Pre-Race Prep

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

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

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

Race Day

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

Race

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

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

Wrong Turn

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

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

Back in the Race

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

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

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

Celebrate Good Times

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

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

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

The Price of No Rest

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

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

Going Long in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

Eiger 101 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 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 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.

Eiger 101 Post 2 – Let The Training Commence

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.

 

Camels, UAE, trail running
The company on the trails is inquisitive.

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!

Eiger Ultra – It’s On… What the Actual F Have I Let Myself In For?!

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:

 

 

http://martin.criminale.com/2016/07/eiger-ultra-trail-101k.html#.WgllRIZx25c

  • 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

 

http://www.dromeus.com/the-eiger-ultra-trail-a-human-experience/

  • A real sense of ‘togetherness’
  • Lots of concentration required – high alpine trails & not well groomed
  • Electrolytes important
  • Harder than the UTMB!

 

The First Ever Eiger Ultra Trail

 

Race Report – The Eiger Ultra Trail e101

http://paleo-runner.blogspot.ae/2014/07/eiger-ultra-trail-101km-2014-rr.html

 

http://dgjury.me/p/02388045-eiger-ultra-trail-e101

Red Hot with Red Bull

Red Hot with Red Bull

Sultan of the Desert Proves Itself a Worthy Title

The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day's racing
The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day’s racing

There are times in one’s life when someone suggests doing something and you find yourself enthusiastically going along with it, only to later question the original sanity of the decision. That was what I found myself doing more than once on Friday 10th October 2014 as I found myself staring up the impossibly steep, rocky face up which I was to carry my mountain bike and, even by that stage, fatigued body and mind. This, ladies and gentleman, was the Red Bull Sultan of the Desert Adventure Race: a three discipline race – trail run, mountain bike, and kayak – that athletes could either complete legs of as part of a team or, like the small band of insane people of which I was a member, race the entire course.

Mountain biking, Red Bull, Sultan of the DesertThe race started, for me at least, a few days earlier as I tapped up friends for the loan of a decent mountain bike, given the fact that I had entered a race that required one and yet had last been on one a year ago in Europe. Bike duly lent (thank you Rachael 🙂 ) I trekked over to Al Ain, where a friend and colleague of mine was kind enough to host me at her and her husband’s place a short distance from the race venue, Wadi Adventure. Pre-race preparations included an awesome braii, continuing my South African vibe from the previous weekend, and firming up last minute team members for a couple of teams suddenly without key members. I felt a bit like a sports agent 🙂
Naomi & I about to start the run stage
Naomi & I about to start the run stage

As with every race I have done to date, the day started incredibly early and we arrived at Wadi Adventure to register as the sun was still very much starting its ascent. Following one bib number change and then another on the day itself, I found myself racing as number 136, got my bike racked, Camel-Pak suitably loaded up with water and nutrition, and waited with the rest of the posse for both the race briefing and then buses out to the start of the first stage of the day: the 15km trail run back into Wadi Adventure.

In hindsight it would have been much better to have had the run kicking off significantly earlier, even right at the crack of dawn, as by the time the starting horn went, following a valiant effort by MC Very Enthusiastic to whip us up into a 300-esque frenzy, the sun was already beating down on us, meaning that even from the start I found my heart-rate shooting up to about 180 and remaining there even as I was forced to slow down my pace. The initial few kilometres seemed to be very short but the going got significantly tougher as we reached our first serious ascent, with running up it simply not something that was going to happen. The key difference between the road and track running that I am used to with triathlon and trail is that there are a lot more opportunities to roll an ankle, slip or otherwise do yourself an injury. On the flip side, as long as you’re careful and don’t do anything too heroic or out of control then trail is far more interesting. Our run route took us through valleys and even through a couple of wadi drains, as we ducked under roads, before emerging the Wadi Adventure side of Jebel Hafeet, and the last few kilometres to base and the start of our bike leg. The placing of water stations at regular intervals was welcome, especially the provision of chilled water, much of which ended up being poured onto and over me as opposed to into me, such was the temperature.
My run time was, in hindsight, a relatively steady 1hr 32min, and would certainly have been faster had I not forced myself to walk sections of it in a bid to bring my heart rate down to a more sustainable level. As I came into Wadi Adventure I took a quick detour via my car in order to change running shoes (wrecking an expensive pair of Zoots on both the trail run and mountain bike seemed wasteful) and a pair of decent cycling shorts, my logic being that I would be sat on my backside for the foreseeable future on both the bike and then the kayak. If I was going to have to suffer then at least it wouldn’t be my arse that bore the brunt!
The course!
The course!

By the end of the run I was craving some sugar and, more pressing, salts, having stupidly forgotten to pack my electrolyte tablets for the one race where it seemed I was definitely going to be wanting them. Although it was a Red Bull sponsored event, offering athletes only Red Bull or water seemed a little silly. As much as I really didn’t need to be guzzling down the copious amounts of caffeine in the aforementioned beverage, my craving for additional sugar to fuel the next stage was greater and so a can was consumed before I was off on the bike, heading out along the initial straight. It might have been a straight, flat line but it was also predominantly thick sand – not the easiest to cycle in, thats for sure! Pushing the bike – a repeated exercise over the next 15km – was necessary for much of the first section, before the drinks station and just before entering the really technical stage of the ride. The MTB course had apparently been designed by a Red Bull sponsored downhill champion and it showed! Rocky, impossibly narrow on sections, with some serious drop offs and fast sections, and an area where we literally had to carry our bikes up a steep face. This relatively short section of more technical riding, which I believe was only about 4km, took most of us a considerable amount of time to navigate our way around and I certainly wasn’t the only person who felt a real attachment to their intact collar bones and thus walked a sizeable portion of the route. The final 8km of the course were flat, taking in the outskirts of the Wadi Adventure park and then taking us over the main road to the hotel and the kayak transition. I am not ashamed to say that I was pretty well cooked by the time I arrived and the sight of athletes further up the field carrying their kayaks back towards Wadi Adventure did little to rejuvenate my flagging energy levels.

A slight moment of the ‘whites’ once off the bike, followed swiftly by a hastily guzzled down Race Food bar, led me into the kayak for the three loops around the artificial lake, this being the first stage of the kayak event. Although I have had the privilege of doing a bit of paddling recently around the Palm, it was clear that my paddling technique still required some honing as I received helpful pointers from much faster fellow athletes, especially as on several occasions I found the kayak spinning to face the wrong way, a frustrating occurrence when all I now wanted was to see the finish line. Anyway, through a combination of stubborn determination, crap technique interspersed with moments of correct technique, and a strong desire to finish the race already, I ploughed on, exiting the water, I believe, in last place. A quick check of the rules to see if there was any reason why I could not place my kayak on my bike for the return to Wadi Adventure – I couldn’t sadly. Thankfully, a fellow individual competitor, Mark, was also at the same stage as me and so we teamed up, taking either end of the kayaks and walking the 2km (plus) back, flanked by the marshals who had stayed back to usher us stragglers in. 20 minutes later and we arrived at the white water course, eager to finish our short but fun rapids stage prior to the finish line, but were met with the rather annoying advice that as they had run out of time for the event (Jeez! Were we really THAT slow and behind everyone else?!) we would just have to drop the kayaks and run to the finish line. As much as I was glad to see the back of those kayaks and was eager to be done, I was also bitterly disappointed to not at least be able to finish ALL of the race. I couldn’t help myself as I asked the organiser, with an unavoidable hint of annoyance in my voice, why, if they were running out of time for us, did they feel it was ok to allow us to lug the kayaks all the way back when we could have been given a bit of a helping lift in order that we at least got to finish the race properly?! Obviously the kayak carrying was still part of the race but I’m sure most would agree that given the choice of which bit could feasibly be ‘cut out’ from the race in favour of doing the really fun bit (the white water), it would have been lugging 22kg kayaks the best part of 2km! Still, the fact remained: we were last, time was against us and so Mark and I ran to the finish, crossing together to close out the day’s efforts. Nearly 6 hours after starting it was over.
Finally finished
Finally finished

As fun as the race was in hindsight, and an epic achievement, especially given the fact that there were actually several DNFs, I would opt to run a half Ironman distance race any day! It was a tough, tough race and I am sure if I work on my specific discipline fitness (trail run, mountain bike and paddling), all of which I really haven’t done much of at all, then a return to the race next year (lol – see what I’m already doing?! Mentally signing up already! We are gluttons for punishment!) would, I am certain, see a much faster time. In the meantime, I plan to stick to triathlon 🙂

The race winners: teams & individuals
The race winners: teams & individuals

 

The Long Way Around

“If you can’t complete this then really you have no place competing in an Ironman in September.” These words were uttered by a good friend and triathlon mentor of mine, referring to a race called the Urban Stinker. Run over a mountain in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) and a total of 36km in length, with about a mile of total climb involved, this was pitched as a test of my base level of preparedness for the challenge of taking on an Ironman, especially given that the furthest I have ever run is the half marathon distance of 21km. With the Ironman seeing triathletes tackle a full marathon (42km) after swimming and cycling heady distances, the prospect is still a daunting one.

training shoes, pack for runThe other reason that it was keenly suggested that I sign up for the Stinker was that my upcoming Ironman takes place at altitude and the run apparently does involve undulation, as you’d expect up in the mountains. This race, therefore, promised to be perfect preparation and a great way to “get the miles into my legs,” as my friend put it. It certainly did achieve that and as I write this, a few days after the event, my quads are still screaming at me and I still look and feel like an old man each time I get up from a chair and walk.

The Urban Stinker is a race run by a group called Urban Ultra, who also organise other long distance races here in the UAE, typically involving getting hot, sweaty and sandy. The venue for this particular race was in the emirate of RAK, at the base of the Golden Tulip hotel, a classically castle keep-esque structure perched atop a hill with views over the small mountains that border the UAE and Oman. Following a long and often stationary drive up from Dubai, and a pre-race beer at the bar in which we were entertained by a Russian belly dancer, the alarm went off to signal the start of a long day during which I would find myself tested.

There were a few unknowns at play with this race, not only the distance. We had to carry a number of pieces of equipment and provisions with us and so I had been out to purchase among other things, a small running backpack and bladder, which I had tested out on a very short local run a few days before. I was worried, based on that experience, that the pack was going to rub my shoulders over the course of 36km and that it would be really uncomfortable. As it turned out, the pack was perfect and one of my better purchases, causing no discomfort in the slightest and the bladder volume of 2litres proving spot on for the length of race. Nutrition was the second major concern as a race of such length requires athletes to take on additional energy and fluids, something that I only had limited experience of with short triathlons. I had consulted with a former vet school friend of mine, Nick Weston, who has in the past completed a number of Ironman races and now regularly competes at a high level in ultra marathons. Based on his advice I took along several gels, dried fruit, sweets and a cereal bar, as well as adding electrolyte tablets to the fluid in my pack. In the end the kit and nutrition worked seamlessly, and I performed well using just the energy gels and fluid, which literally ran out as I was descending the final leg.

The start of the race was relatively flat, taking us through an area of scrubland before reaching the start of the climb, with a small cluster of houses, complete with many goats of varying ages running around. The start of the climb was relatively gentle and I felt confident as I repeated the mantra “just keep moving” to myself as I kept up a good technique and passed a good number of runners who had elected to walk very early into the race. I always find that the hardest thing to do in any race is start running again once you have started to walk or, worse still, stop. However, my determination to “keep running” was severely tested and ultimately defeated as we hit the seriously steep sections of the climb, which were very very steep. Running up them would have been impressive for mountain goats, let alone us mere mortals, and so I did walk sections of the higher course. The turnaround at the top was marked by the organiser’s tent and cries of encouragement from spectators as we breathed a sigh of relief and headed into the lengthy downhill part of the course. The main risk during this part of the race was to keep a safe footing as the rocks were, at times, really quite loose under foot and it would have been easy to take a tumble. Committing to the slopes and keeping more of a forward stance, as well as carefully balancing seemed to be the key and I thankfully avoided any issues. Keeping up a good level of awareness and safe technique on the final leg, however, when the legs were screaming was a challenge, and I am aware that it is normally at such times, when you are tired and inattentive, that most injuries occur. As such the race really did keep participants mentally focused and engaged.

One of the nice aspects of the course, apart from the breathtaking views out over RAK toward the Arabian Gulf, was the fact that we passed by and through resident dwellings, with a group of local men working on a house near the top of the climb looking on amused as the bunch of nutters that we so clearly were repeatedly ran past, each time looking more fatigued than before. The waves, cheers and general friendly exchanges between the villagers, including the group of enthusiastic and animated children, in the village at the base of the race, was really nice and a great way of feeling more connected to the UAE, especially as limiting your time to Dubai can offer a very blinkered and skewed version of what the UAE is and stands for.

With the first lap being taken relatively steadily, owing to the fact that I had no idea what lay in store for us further along the course, I felt relatively fresh as I set off on the second lap. The climb, however, did get tougher second time around and I ended up ascending a little slower, or so it felt, before having something really kick into gear on the descent as I felt like I literally flew down. The third lap was when it really got tough with the climb being much much harder and really needing some mental grit to resist the real temptation just to stop. There was a sense of real ‘in it together’ as I slowly caught up with and eventually pulled away from another young runner who was finding the climb tough. It’s one of the great features of sport and events like this: knowing that when you really want it, there are reserves of energy and determination to tap into that will help you push on beyond that which you previously thought yourself capable of. I felt totally elated as I came in to the finish in a time of 4 hours and 14 minutes. The sense of achievement was wonderful and I feel so much more confident about the upcoming Ironman race now that I have this race under my belt. After all, with the climbing it is widely accepted that running this race very much signals that I should be capable of tackling the marathon on the day.

Khatt hot SpringsA well deserved post-race dip in the Khatt Springs, a natural hot water spring at the race finish, was the best way to ease tired muscles, followed by lunch at the hotel and thoughts of returning to the hustle and bustle of Dubai.

I would thoroughly recommend the Urban Stinker race to anyone and may well do it again next year.

Urban Ultra – organisers of the Urban Stinker race