Mountains? Check. Epic views? Check and, once more, check. Unbelievably awesome race conditions? Absolutely check. On reflection the decision to throw caution to the wind and sign up for the Whistler 50 – the 50 in this case referring to the number of miles – was a very good one as in terms of manners by which to experience the alpine landmark that is Whistler, BC outside of the ski season this turned out to be one of the best. As a social experience it was also an exceptional weekend.
The fact that it has taken me so long to actually write and publish this report is on account of having learnt one very important lesson the hard way: the vital importance of adequate rest and recuperation following a big race, and the very real risks of succumbing to illness that accompany big race-day efforts. Needless to say I succumbed and part of my report will delve into the important lessons taken from what has been a very unpleasant several days.
If truth be told I was apprehensive about this race in spite of the weeks of good, solid training that I was fortunate enough to be able to commit to, with more time at hand on account of being on a sabbatical and setting my own schedule, the plethora of amazing trails and run routes on offer around my apartment and Vancouver in general, and the availability of both gym facilities and a high spec athletics track a mere stone’s throw from my place. So as far as training went I was, on paper, set for a great race. However, concerns remained as in spite of feeling physically fit – in fact, as fit, I think, as I ever have, save perhaps for when I was at peak Ironman training – I was concerned that my mental game was going to let me down, especially coming off the back of not completing the Eiger 101 and the issues I had halfway through my last 50km race back in Dubai, when I hit a mental wall big time. Ultras are unlike any other endurance sport I have engaged in so far – they properly mess with your head in addition to the sheer physical demands that come with running such long distances. As much as I would love to claim to be the most mentally resilient athlete there is I know that I’m not and my tolerance for real discomfort is actually pretty low. So why did I choose this sport again?!
Whilst the distance was set to be longer than anything I’ve run to date – Wadi Bih was 72km – the profile, according to that published on the event website, was relatively tame in comparison to many alpine races. That doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park, especially with most of the climbing taking place in one relatively short but intense section of the second loop. The course itself comprised four repeated loops of 20km each, with those then split into two separate loops that started and ended back in the Olympic Plaza – yep, complete with giant Olympic rings – right in the centre of Whistler village. The first of the two was 13km and essentially traced a course around the perimeter of the golf course and was almost entirely on paved surface, whilst the second felt a little more ‘trail.’ That one was shorter, at 7km, and headed out from the village along the river as it tumbled and rolled over boulders and rocks on its long route from peak to sea, before climbing up to and past Lost Lake, providing absolutely breathtaking views and a picture of alpine serenity, before descending back down to the river and the village. The looping nature of the course meant that we were able to access both the main aid station and our drop bags multiple times, a blessing for the most part but, as the race wore on, the mileage ramped up and the fatigue really started to set in, a real temptation to take perhaps too long between loops and, with those mental niggles becoming louder shouts, an easy option to throw in the towel.
Nutrition has, in previous races, been an Achilles heel of mine and has almost certainly played a role in some of my tougher moments. Basically the issue is that I just don’t eat enough during the race and when I do start feeling hungry then unfortunately that is often the point at which it’s too late to really make a significant difference. As such, a priority for me in this race was to pay closer attention to eating and drinking enough to stay hydrated and adequately fueled. Whilst I do have Tailwind, the liquid nutrition that many in the ultra community appear to use, I am yet to get my head around, or even my stomach for that matter, the recommendation to consume the quantities they do. As such, I still very much make use of good old fashioned ‘solids,’ with my particular choice of fuel for this race coming in the form of various candy bars (Snickers & Mars to be specific), bananas, cereal bars and, at the halfway point, some mouthfuls of delicious beef jerky, which does absolute wonders for sating that inevitable salt craving that develops at some point and, well, just a nice break from all the sugary shit. In hindsight I probably should have eaten more still, as there were definitely some moments when I did actually feel hungry and I know that my fluid intake should definitely have been greater. I had been pretty good during the earlier stages of the race, remembering to sip regularly and feeling happy to have to visit the little runners room now and then, but as the day wore on and my mind became set firmly on the finish I confess to taking my eye off the ball and consuming less. The fact that I finished the race with some of my original 2 litres of fluid in my pack somewhat drove this fact home as I had fully expected to fill it at least once or twice during the day. Definitely something to ruminate on in preparation for future races.
One of the advantages of being free to set my own agenda – primarily on account of the VR/AR “course” I came to Vancouver to partake it turning out to be a dud, thus forcing me to go completely independent – is that I was able to take the time and head up to Whistler in advance of the race, get settled and not have to rush come race day. The easiest option was to book a seat on one of the various buses that operate a shuttle service to and from the resort, with Epic Rides being the operator I ultimately chose, paying CA $35 for a ticket each way. The advantage of just getting to kick back on a bus was that a) I was able to actually enjoy the views en route rather than focus on not killing myself behind the wheel, and b) eliminated all the expense and hassle of dealing with a hire car. After all, I wasn’t planning on doing any driving once up in the mountains anyway so having a car parked all weekend would have been redundant.
Another advantage of the bus was that it was a nice way of meeting some new people, with one person being a fellow solo ultra runner, Ingrid, who originally hails from Brazil but is now based in Victoria, BC and was heading up to Whistler clearly looking to put in a good solid performance.
Once in Whistler I was struck not by the overwhelming beauty of the place, because, well, I knew it was going to be and had been able to admire the changing scenery en route, but rather by how happy I felt to be back up in the mountains. For a lad who grew up in flat, rural Norfolk I do have this affinity for peaks that means that I just feel happy in the mountains. It was the same in Tahoe, the same in Switzerland and now here in Canada – there is just something mesmerisingly majestic about being able to peer up and drink in the view of snow-capped mountains, knowing that they’ve been there way before us and will, almost certainly, be there long after we’ve all pushed ourselves out of existence. Its humbling. Levelling.
The town of Whistler was much like the ski towns I have visited in other parts of the world, and as I strolled down through the village in search of my hotel the usual, familiar names were evident – Patagonia, North Face, Starbucks etc – albeit sitting alongside as many independents. It was clearly a popular town and was busy even in the absence of any skiable snowfall. My hotel, the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel, was located just a stone’s throw from Olympic Plaza and the main focus of activity on race day, and was extremely comfortable, even coming with a hot tub and pool, welcome amenities when it came to after the race.
It took a good amount of willpower not to give in to the temptation to wander off on a long hike such was the allure of the surrounding countryside and the fact that it was a stunning Autumn day, although I did do a decent explore of the town itself, stopping off for some exquisite pizza and sitting by the river to join the Thinking Man sculpture in some quiet contemplation – good spot for it! At 5pm we were able to call in and pick up our race packs, with the solo runners dealt with at a smaller table by the race organiser, Ron. Apparently there were about 44 runners registered in total for the race and so it was set to be a great day, especially with the forecast remaining as good as it had been all week – quite the contrast to the year before by all accounts. I was definitely going to need to remember to pack my camera for the race!
With my race gear placed out, nutrition organised and bagged up and one, final high-carb meal safely put away I was tucked up in bed by 9pm, meaning that I actually, remarkably, got a full 7 hours of sleep in by the time the alarm pierced the ambience in the morning.
I was eager to get going and see what the day had in store. I knew I’d prepared, I knew I was fit and I knew that I was feeling as good as I could expect to just a short time away from hearing the starter’s horn. As such it was just a matter of going through the usual race-prep motions: food in, anxiety out, get dressed, final bag checks and then head out the door. Given the forecast for very chilly temperatures to start I opted for multiple layers fully expecting that I had likely overdone it and would be removing at least one a short distance into the race. In the end, however, my choice of trail top, thermal layer, cycling thermal layer, gloves, snood and a beanie proved to be more than required and all remained in place for at least the first two laps of the course – it was freeeeezzzziiiinnnnggg!!!
As 6am rolled around those of us mad enough to choose to run 80km collected at the start, having dropped off our aid station bags, and counted down until we were officially off! My tactic, as far as I had one, was to keep my pace really steady to start, aiming to run no harder than would have been comfortable to chat at and to focus on remembering the route as best I could. It was extremely dark for most of the first loop, with headlamps mandatory and actually very much needed. Whilst the views in the dark were lacking it did help to ensure that focus remained on running sensibly and on both eating and drinking regularly. To say that there wasn’t a part of me that was a little nervous/ excited at the very real prospect of some sort of wildlife to come leaping out of the dark depths would be a lie – after all, we were running in actual bear country!
By the time we were about 7km in I really started to find my pace and was feeling strong, with the going perfect, the air crisp and fresh and the only sounds to be heard the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze, the rhythmic pad of feet on the path and the sound of my thoughts. It is moments like those that we run for – being one of the only people for miles around to be up and out, enjoying nature and just drinking it all in! Blissful.
The bliss, however, soon changed to concern as the two runners I had caught up to and I passed a sign that stated the village was 4.2km in the opposite direction to that in which we were running despite it being clear that we should have been no more than a kilometre from home, having already run about 12km of what was meant to be a 13km loop. When the scenery started to look very familiar we decided that we had, in fact, gone wrong and started running back the way we came. As we passed another runner he seemed confident that we hadn’t gone wrong and so, given that I had zero idea either way, I swung back round and joined him – after all, he seemed pretty sure. It was about 2km down the route, when it was absolutely crystal clear that we’d passed that section before, that it did dawn on us that we had gone wrong. How wrong was unclear but there had been a route error at some point. The trouble was that on that first loop we’d seen nobody official at all and so trying to work out what had happened and where the error may have occurred was a guessing game. Feeling pretty annoyed at ourselves, especially given how early it was in the race to be adding unnecessary extra miles, we made the decision to just start tracking back towards the village, as signposted by the roadside signs. It transpired that where we’d gone wrong, and where a lot of others had made the same error, was at the 10km aid station. I recall running towards it, seeing two other runners ahead, and seeing a portable toilet, table and white gazebo, but no-one manning it. We’d been advised to look out for orange cones marking the route and so seeing that said cones went to the right most of us naturally followed them in that direction. What we hadn’t realised at the time was that it was a tricky station that actually represented a bidirectional split – on the outward leg of the loop we ran to the aid station, passing it on our right, but on the return leg we were actually meant to hang a left at it, to pick up the trail specifically back into town! Some people who had raced the same route before had apparently remembered this and so avoided the error whilst those of us blindly following the cones were the ones to get drawn into the trap.
In the end Mike and I ended up returning to the start via part of the second loop route and added on nearly 5km to our total for the day, an annoying way to start but thankfully not ruinous, especially after checking that our failure to come over the requisite timing mat was not going to result in a disqualification. If that had been a risk then I’d have been more peeved but as it all looked to be ok I just chalked it up to one of those ultra experiences to learn from and focused on the rest of the day, and trying to make up some of the lost time whilst trying to avoid pushing too hard or fast too early and blowing the rest of the race.
Back in the Race
With some more fuel on board it was off and out onto the second, shorter loop. I confess that I did jack up the pace for the first 2km but was thankfully slowed to something more sensible by the arrival of the first climb of the loop. I learnt pretty early on in ultra running that there is very little advantage to be gained from trying to run up gradients over a certain steepness – it’s just inefficient! As such, I power-hiked up most of the climbs, taking the opportunity to catch my breath, take on food and water and just gather my thoughts. The climbing in this race all seemed to be focused in one relatively short section of the second loop and by the time we reached Lost Lake, whose appearance changed with each lap and as the day progressed, it was a long, steady downhill run back to the village and the start of grand-loop number two.
With the route now manned with supporters and volunteers it was much clearer where we were supposed to go. As such it was easier to just relax into the race and not have to worry about going wrong again. I found the second loop to be my best as I was well warmed up by then, feeling energetic and just enjoying the experience and the views of being out in Whistler, with no hint of muscle pain setting in – just that lovely sense of flow that comes from running well in breathtaking surroundings and with perfect conditions.
By the time I made it out onto lap three I was aware of the relay runners, primarily on account of the fact that they rather unsurprisingly passed us solo runners at a decent clip and devoid of any pack on their backs. They were running a very different race to us – more of a sprint in their case – and so remembering this helped to avoid feeling disillusioned when they did sail past looking strong. The support everyone got from one another, and from the plethora of volunteers along the route, was wonderful and made a huge difference to the overall experience of the race, especially during those final laps when the fatigue was starting to kick in and the desire to walk became ever stronger. Seeing an aid station coming up with supporters whooping and hollering at you to keep going and telling you how well you’re doing does wonders for lifting even the most weary of spirits and I’m sure all of us put in PBs over those specific, short sections alone. One stand out memory for me was jogging along at what felt like a very slow pace on my final long loop when a relay runner zipped past me shouting as she did, “you are awesome!” I confess that put a smile smack bang on my face and really helped drive the legs home.
With just the final 7km to go I dropped off everything bar my camera at the aid station before striking out, feeling pumped that this was it: the final push. 7km? What was that? Nothing! I knew that I could tick that off even if my legs and feet were definitely aching by that point. It was the length of a short training run, that was all. With one final set of pics taken at the lake viewing point – the best light of the day was absolutely during the fourth lap – it was time to dig in for one, final push down the hill and home. It always amazes me that no matter how much you’ve put into a race and how tired one might be feeling, there is always a sprint in the legs for the final few hundred meters. And so it was, as I saw the village come into view I stepped on the gas, literally sprinting down the last section of road before crossing over into the plaza and then left towards the finish! I was so pumped at that moment and felt absolutely elated as I crossed the line in a total time of 8 hours 24 mins, and a total distance of just under 85km. Not bad for a day’s work 🙂
Celebrate Good Times
Whilst I was feeling tired, very tired, and sore following an entire working-day of pretty much non-stop running I was also feeling elated. I’d put in a solid performance, dealt with an early setback in good humour and ultimately pushed on to have a great day. I was very pleased. Mike came through the finish a little after me and I made sure to hobble over to congratulate him – whilst we’d not necessarily run together together for most of the day, we were definitely close and I considered him my main ‘brother in arms’ for the day. Its an incredibly friendly sport and I am always amazed at the range of lovely people you end up meeting during ultras.
The social element of my experience continued as I made my way back over to the hotel – I knew it was a blessing to have booked one so close by – and ultimately into the blissfully soothing warm waters of the hot tub. There is nothing like lowering run-weary legs down into bubbling warm water! Lovely! It wasn’t long before others joined, with the first people climbing in being three guys who had run as part of a relay team from Vancouver. In short course the rest of their team, who were all staying at the hotel as well, joined, making for a cosily packed hot tub. I learned that they were part of a relay team put together from their run group, the Oak Street Runners, which I realised was fairly close to where I was based at UBC. They’d had a cracking day, coming in 17th overall, and no wonders with several very fast runners among their team, in addition to doing the race in fancy dress, which always scores awesome points in my book! They were even nice enough to invite me to join them for some drinks at the local bar that evening, something I eagerly took them up on given that a good beer and conversation is the best way to mark the completion of a successfully run race in my humble opinion.
Fast forward an hour or so, during which time I tried to catch a few much needed Z’s, and I sauntered across the road to the bar to meet everyone. To say they were a welcoming and riotously fun group to hang out with would be an understatement and those couple of initial drinks progressed to joining them for tapas (and more drinks) at an awesome local restaurant, before we hit the clubs and the night went from there. Short version of the story = very little sleep, a very fatigued Sunday but a perfect way to round out what had consistently proven itself to be an epic weekend. I would like to say a huge thank you to them all for making me a welcome part of their team that weekend – thanks to Yun, Dom, Mary, Davide, Dave, Marko, Carola and Joanna 🙂
The Price of No Rest
What surprised me following the weekend was just how surprisingly good I felt. My legs barely ached and I felt energetic, so much so that I quickly jumped into the mission I had set myself, which had been to learn how to do a hockey stop on the ice. With no running to officially do, although I did join Jo for a cheeky 10km on the Monday evening, I saw no problem in directing my energies elsewhere. Unbeknownst to me, however, was that in spite of feeling good I really should have forced myself to properly take it easy. According to some studies runners recovering from an ultra marathon can be at greater risk of developing, for example, upper respiratory infections. In hindsight, going out the night of the race and “having it large” probably wasn’t the smartest move either, as the liver is already pretty stressed from the race without having several drinks thrown in for good measure. Still, I didn’t really know or give much thought to any of this at the time and as far as I was concerned I felt great. Until that it is, I didn’t.
Almost a week to the day, during a trip over to Toronto to see some family, I started to feel feverish, then developed an acutely painful throat that ultimately saw me call in to a doctor. The initial diagnosis was Strep throat and I was issued with antibiotics and told to carry on taking Tylenol. Cue one of the most miserable weeks of my life so far, including a flight back to Vancouver during which I repeatedly felt like chucking up, and no let up in what felt like my head being in a slowly tightening vice, my teeth and jaw in a similarly badly fitted brace and throat feeling as though an army of spike-wearing devils were doing a constant jig on my tonsils. That an ongoing fever that all served to make me feel bloody wretched. The diagnosis after a second trip to see a doctor was actually severe pharyngitis, most likely viral and as a result of my immune system being in a weakened state following the exertions of the race the week before. Even as I write this I am still recovering and think I now have had some glimpse into what it might feel like to be 110! If my experience this past week had anything to do with failing to look after myself properly following running an ultra-marathon then I vow in future to be far, far better to myself. Health is one of those incredibly precious attributes we have and only truly appreciate when it is not present – if taking a few more days off, as in really off – and relaxing properly following a race can help avoid feeling as shitty as I have then sign me up! One thing I do know now is that I am absolutely not Superman! 🙂
Whistler. The name alone is instantly recognisable. Immediately it conjures up images of pristine alpine perfection and for anyone visiting Vancouver, it feels almost irresponsible not to make the effort to head out of the city to check Whistler out for yourself. I know Whistler more as a hallowed site of snow sports action, with the memory still firmly lodged in my mind of the Canadian friend I had way back in New Zealand, during my Gap Year travels, who playfully scoffed at the very idea of essentially slumming it on Kiwi slopes when she was used to the “perfect powder of Whistler.” Since then I have had this image and idea of the place firmly chiselled into my psyche. I had to check it out even though it would not be to engage in any snowboarding, a simple, irksome yet unavoidable feature of the fact that the snow doesn’t generally arrive and the resorts don’t open until after I am scheduled to fly back home. Still, it’s not just snow sports that attract visitors to Whistler and I didn’t have to search too long to find my excuse to go: an ultra marathon!
Fresh off the Eiger 101 experience in July, an alpine race that really showed me how tough this sport and the mountains can be, I was, initially, apprehensive about the idea of signing up for another long-distance mountain race. However, the one I found, a four loop course totalling 80km, and part of a main, team relay event, appears, on paper, to be way less brutal than the Eiger had proven to be. The event itself is the BC Athletics Whistler 50 Relay & Ultra. As far as I can tell, the course is relatively flat, sticking close to the centre of Whistler itself, and sounds as though it is set to be a really fun, sociable event, with a big post-race party featuring prominently on their marketing materials.
At the end of the day my priority was getting up to see Whistler and so if I can combine that with an actual sporting event then all the better. Of course I intend to finish the race but, ultimately, if the distance does end up beating me then it won’t be the end of the world as it was never the number one goal of going. Having said that, I have run (close to) the distance before, with Wadi Bih sitting at 72km in length, so with some good training and favourable race day conditions, I don’t see any reason to doubt myself in the solo category. Credit card swiped and I was in. The easy part done.
Whilst I was due to be physically located the other side of the world during the preparation for the race I knew full well that, once again, the expert advice and training guidance of my coach, Trace, was required and, once again, she needed no encouragement to join me on this new, crazy challenge. With all my belongings packed away in storage, essentials in a suitcase and eager to see what my three months in Vancouver were going to lead to, I jetted out of Dubai and, via Amsterdam, made my way to Canada. Ironically the first couple of weeks turned out to be less than desirable training conditions, with government air warnings being issued daily on account of the smoke and fine particulate matter in the air, a result of the forest fires raging away to the north and south. It was so bad the first week of my stay that I didn’t actually get to set eyes on the mountains that form the backdrop to North Vancouver until into week two of being there. My first day in the city did see me do a lap round Stanley Park’s sea wall, an iconic run but on reflection perhaps as healthy an experience as simply pulling up a bar stool in a local pub and chugging through a pack of cigarettes. Ironic then that I found myself advising Trace that in spite of having left the hot, dusty conditions of the UAE in summer – hostile training conditions for outdoor training – for what I expected to be the nirvana of run training, much of the planned ‘fresh air’ runs that were scheduled on my plan had to be canned until the air improved. It didn’t help matters that, almost certainly due to the bad air, I developed a sore throat, and found the first few weeks of running here in Canada surprisingly tough, with my legs feeling ridiculously stiff and sore whenever I headed out. I couldn’t figure out whether it was just a case of not being used to the temperate conditions or still feeling the Eiger in my muscles, although I’d surely had ample recovery(?) Thankfully it has all since resolved and the past few weeks of training have felt way more comfortable with the pain that I was, at times, experiencing gone and instead replaced by the all too familiar and infinitely more reassuring tiredness that comes with a good, solid workout. I recognise that feeling and embrace it as a training partner!
In addition to the legs regaining their mojo the air quality thankfully improved relatively swiftly and the smoke now feels like a weird, distant memory, replaced instead by what I had expected and excitedly anticipated by moving to Vancouver: crisp, clean air, nature-abundant trails and views that turn any training run into a sumptuous feast for the visual cortex. I ended up being extremely fortunate with my accommodation arrangements by finding a room in an apartment to rent just on the edge of the UBC (University of British Columbia) campus, out on the western tip of Vancouver and nestled within the stunning forests of the Pacific Spirit National Park, an extensive area of ancient woodland that’s criss-crossed by scores of trails, ranging from the wide, straight and relatively flat all the way through to the narrow, winding and undulating. It is a trail runners playground and one could be satisfied simply sticking to running in the immediate vicinity of my apartment, let alone the tempting offerings that come from venturing beyond this corner of Vancouver. Another stroke of luck was the fact that literally next door to my apartment building is a branch of a Canadian running store chain, The Running Room, that hosts weekly social runs. As such, every Sunday morning sees me join a lovely eclectic group of runners, ranging across age, nationality and all with the same goal: to come out and just enjoy running. This regular injection of social contact into my run training has been fantastic, especially as a lot of the time long-distance running can often feel like quite a solitary endeavour. To round out my good fortune with regard to training my place also happens to be less than a kilometre from the main UBC athletics track, which so far seems to be open to any and all to make use of, which is an absolute treat and one that has enabled some really excellent interval training to be built into my programme. I actually don’t think I could have asked to be in a better location for run training, and it all came about more by luck than design!
There have been a few standout moments so far in my running here in Vancouver, with one of the earliest being taking part in a Running Rooms event at Stanley Park: a night run. The Friday evening of my second week in the city saw me join scores of other enthusiastic pavement pounders as we adorned ourselves with glowsticks and hit either the 5km or 10km races that took in most of the sea wall that I’d run just the week before, except this time at night. I was especially pleased with my time and although a stitch set in at the 8km mark – an annoying performance curber – I posted a pretty fast time of just over 40 minutes for the full 10km. That really gave my confidence a shot in the arm and I feel as though the training has stepped up nicely since.
Another early experience was during my first solo run around the UBC area. As much an excuse to just explore as it was a training run, my ‘make it up as you go along’ route saw me head on down the steep woodland staircase from Marine Drive to Wreck Beach, a popular stretch of coastline that is well known for being ‘clothing optional.’ It transpired that way more of the punters at the beach that day opted NOT to wear any clothes and so I had my first real experience of Canadian liberalism, including at one point some dude who asked me for directions and then proceeded to try and engage me in a full conversation about how his wife was from the UK etc, all whilst his entire compliment of junk was out flip-flapping away. All I could think at the time was, “seriously dude! This is way too weird for me right now…. I just want to carry on running!” Very comical indeed!
One of the early advantages of throwing in with the local running store was that I was able to join a few of them on a couple of trips across to North Vancouver, with one to do a hike on the Baden Powell trail from Deep Cove, and another to tackle the punishably steep and heart-bursting Grouse Grind, that takes masochists like us from the base to the top of Grouse mountain in just under 2km! The record for it sits at about 25mins, which is insanely quick. It took me just under an hour and that was with me really giving it some welly! I doubt I’d have made it over to check out such spots if it were not for the generous spirit of the people I was with as to do so with public transport would take about 2 hours, whereas in a car it only takes about 30 to 40 mins to get to each place.
One other highlight to date has been running in Seattle during a weekend trip down to the US city. Similar in many regards to Vancouver, my long Saturday morning run was a fantastic way to explore yet another stunningly picturesque city. Running really is one of the best ways to explore new places!
And so with the race now less than a week away I am entering the final few days of tapered training. The forecast, at this stage anyway, is looking good for race day, with sunshine and mild to cool temperatures. If that remains the case then we should be set for an awesome weekend of running and fun. Bring it on!
The beauty of running is that it is possible to pretty much do it anywhere. The equipment requirements are essentially very simple: a pair of decent running shoes and some suitable athletic apparel, because lets be honest no one is going to be heading out for a training run wearing their travel suit, are they?! When preparing for a race such as the Eiger 101 it is important to keep up the training regardless of where I find myself and whether or not I am on holiday. So it was the case at Christmas as I headed out of Dubai and flew to Spain – specifically Granada to start – for the week encompassing Christmas itself and including my dad’s birthday. With triathlon I would have fretted about the logistics of being able to get in some bike training and finding the closest pool so as to keep up the swim programme. Not so with running. All I needed to pack were my runners, including my trail shoes because, who knows, perhaps I’d find some good off-road options, and a couple of slightly warmer layers more than I’d normally don for Dubai-based training. Simple and it meant that the ‘athletic endeavours’ compartment of my packing took up a tiny corner of my suitcase as opposed to needing to lug around a bike box!
So what of the running in Spain itself? Given that it was December and we were up in the mountains, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada range, it was cold. There were, however, just two days when one could describe conditions as wet and so the bulk of my running was conducted in chilly crisp air with bright blue skies and sunlight, making me very grateful that I packed the trusty Oakleys alongside leggings. Granada offered a feast of options, both visually and physically as I had the option to run flat, following the river in both directions, with landscape painting quality views of the distant snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, or take to the steep climbs up into historic neighbourhoods, or barrios, like Albaícin or the climb up to the famous landmark of la Alhambra, the medieval hilltop fort that is Granada’s enduring image. With steps, pedestrians, narrow streets and generally lots of little features of interest to pay close attention to, road running in Granada did have more in common with a true trail run than a plodding, steady road run, with the need to vary pacing, stride length and effort regularly. This made for both physically and mentally rewarding runs. Being able to head out at any time of the day due to high temperatures not being a concern was also a welcome blessing.
One of the most memorable runs I completed was towards the end of my stay in the city as I struck out along the river, following the path as it left the main city, becoming more and more rural and eventually transitioning to a narrow trail. I opted to turn back once the path became both too narrow and too muddy, retracing my steps into Granada before taking a right that led me through the centre, weaving between strolling pedestrians on their morning commute, before climbing steadily toward Albaícin. I love those runs when you just feel so good that the thought of sticking to ‘the programme’ and bringing that feeling of flow to a premature end seems wrong, disrespectful almost, and so it was this thought that drove my legs and body up and up right to the top of the hill on which the small church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto was situated. Due to it being a fairly cold and damp morning I was one of only three people present and so was able to enjoy the panoramic view out over the city unobstructed and in peace. Well worth the climb up!
From Granada I parted with my parents at Malaga airport, them returning to the UK whilst I flew up to Madrid, where I spent New Years with my girlfriend and other Madrid-based amigos. The running in Madrid is as good as that in Granada, and once again, I was blessed to be able to run at any time of the day without the fear of heat exhaustion or sun stroke, and with both the city to explore and the expanses of the various parks, such as Parque del Retiro, and the huge Casa de Campo, I was in runners’ nirvana!
Following on from my previous post where I mentioned that I had placed an order for my very own set of Injinji trail socks, such were the incredibly positive reviews that seemed to be emanating from the wider ultra-marathon community when it came to the subject of blister prevention, I excitedly took delivery of the package that duly arrived from the US, where the company is based, and could not wait to head out for a run and test them out.
Getting in Touch with my Inner Ape
The first thing that really struck me about the Injinjis was the obvious fact that they have individual pockets for each toe, giving them the appearance of literally being a glove for the feet. Once on board and reconciled with the weirdness of their appearance – a simple side-effect of having always used and thus been pre-conditioned to ‘normal’ socks – I proceeded to don them, finding it a little fiddly to ensure that each toe made it snugly and individually into it’s respective Coolmax polyester, Nylon & Lycra enclave. Given the relative fiddliness and additional time required to make sure they are fitted properly I doubt I’d be reaching for this type of sock for an event such as a triathlon, where my ability to transition quickly is already laughable. They were, however, very comfortable and, in my opinion, looked stylish with their orange and green colour combo!
Did They Work?
Whilst at the time of writing I am yet to really test them to the extreme at full ultra distances, over the shorter training runs that I have been out on the results have been convincing enough. Now maybe my feet have simply toughened up since I wrote last and the introduction of ‘posh performance socks’ has had zero impact but I suspect that protecting each toe individually and preventing that annoying toe-on-toe friction, especially toe-nail on toe that I was prone to, has made a big difference. My feet have exited my running shoes looking unscathed – a far cry from the blistery horror scene that seemed to greet me just a couple of weeks ago. I think if my feet could speak, which I guess technically they can on account of being attached to, well, me, they’d be saying, “good find bro!” So yeah, I guess it’s official: I am, or at least was, excited by socks. Ah, the headonistic rock and roll lifestyles of the ultra runner, eh!
To get your own pair just head over to their website (nb: I am not in any way commercially connected to the company and have written this solely because I a) like their product, b) like writing and ultra-running, and c) like the thought of being able to help even just one other runner if and where I can): https://www.injinji.com/
(However, should anyone at Injinji HQ happen to be reading this and feel like they need a new brand ambassador then I’d throw my hat – or should that be socks – in the ring 🙂 You can, after all, just pay me in socks!)
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.
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)
This is what I am more interested in as I would rather not have to deal with pesky foot problems at all if I can help it. One piece of advice that seemed to crop up again and again in all the blog posts and articles I read about ultra-running was to invest in a pair of Injinji socks. The theory is that by encasing each toe in it’s own individual compartment there is less risk of the damaging toe-on-toe rubbing that so often occurs with normal socks. So, with thoughts of content feet I duly punched in the credit card info into their website and am, at the time of writing, awaiting delivery of four pairs of these apparent wonder garments. Lets see if they prove to be as awesome as reports suggest.
The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.
I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however, that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Paperwork. Oh The Joy.
I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂 and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.
First Time – Clueless
Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.
As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.
The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.