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!
Red Hot with Red Bull
Sultan of the Desert Proves Itself a Worthy Title
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
“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.
The 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.
A 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.