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! 🙂
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!
People often describe life’s journey as a rollercoaster. The same can absolutely be applied to an ultramarathon as one most certainly experiences fabulous highs and descents into lows before almost as quickly ascending to new heights. So it was for my last big athletic push of 2017: the UTX 50, organised and staged by the fantastic Urban Ultra team.
The day started as most do when you’re into weird things like running very very long distances for fun: in the dark and far earlier than most humans would consider sane. With my race pack having been picked up a couple of days before and the requisite bits of mandatory kit acquired, nutrition and the various items of clothing I may well have needed during the day were carefully packed into my car before I started the long, somewhat hazy drive out towards Ras Al Khaimah and the pin-pointed location of the race setting. Thank goodness for Google Maps is all I can say as without it I sincerely doubt i’d have made it to the start line. As I followed the digital line on my phone’s map display off the main highway and onto an altogether narrower, more sandy roadway I soon became grateful for the fact that the organisers had remembered that not everyone in the UAE drives a 4WD. Having said that I reached a point where it became clear that to proceed may well have meant risking getting stuck in the very soft sand that the road had transitioned to, especially as I had already seen one runner do just that after taking the wrong one of two options at a forked junction. The race site, I was informed by a couple who had opted to camp overnight, was just a hundred metres on and thus easily walkable.
One thing that many people find hard to get their heads around, especially after the stifling heat and relentless humidity of the summer months is the fact that in winter it does actually get pretty darned cold, especially out in the desert. As such, getting changed into my running gear was a nippy affair and I was glad to be able to don my snood and Patagonia base layer before grabbing my CamelPak, with nutrition stowed away, and head torch before making my way over to registration. Quite a few people had, it turned out, managed to drive to the main site – the road into camp was actually passable by normal cars; these things often only become apparent after the fact – and when I arrived the music was pumping, lights were on and the inflatable arch of the start and finish line was clearly visable, with registration just to the side of it. Signed in and with at least forty minutes to go until the start I opted to head back to the car and hunker down with a book rather than freeze by standing around idly. I’d have more than enough time to spend on my feet come the actual race!
The trail and ultra scene out here is a relatively small one and so the same faces tend to pop up at most events, which makes for a really nice, familial or collegiate atmosphere. So it was as many of the Dubai Trail Runners, including head honcho, Lee, filtered into the start line huddle, exchanging greetings and comments on how chilly it was, before we were given the briefing and placed under starters orders. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….FOGHORN!” We were off, with the eventual race winners striking up an impressive pace from the get-go whilst I found myself comfortably towards the front but in no way pushing for any kind of heroic lead. Not in this race and not generally in this sport – I respect the distance too much and recognise my own limits at present. Besides, we first of all had about 3km of sand and dunes to traverse before the more traditional trail running ensued and based on my limited experience of dune running I know how tough it can be and so wished to conserve energy as much as I was able. One thing that fairly rapidly became clear was that I could easily have done without the base layer as within about five minutes of dune-climbing effort I was well and truly ‘warmed up’ and would have jettisoned it early on had I been ok to stop. Instead I elected to push on at a steady pace before making the final breathtakingly beautiful descent down the last big dune, with the sun now making an appearance and illuminating the dunes and mountains of the area, and stopped at the bottom, where the hard track started, in order to pack away my base-layer, sand gaiters and lamp and catch a much needed breath before the main section of the day kicked off.
I can’t really say that I had any real strategy for the day other than to remember not to push it too hard in the early stages as tempting as it may have been, and to remember to remain hydrated and adequately fed, both of which are surprisingly easy to forget to do, especially in cooler conditions. I had intended to listen to some music as a way of ‘zoning out’ during the race but found myself foregoing that option in favour of simply enjoying my surroundings, brief conversations with fellow runners and to pay close attention to both the trail – an important way to reduce the risk of stumbles, falls, ankle twists and all of the other ridiculously simple to occur happenings that can befall a trail runner, especially when tired – and my general surroundings, both of which were beautiful. The first section of trail after the dunes took us out of the ‘countryside’ and into an area of housing, meaning a section of paved road running, where we came upon the first aid station – I elected not to stop at this as still had plenty of water and was feeling in a good flow state so wished to capitalise by continuing on. After that the trail took us into a narrow section of wadi before opening up into a wider, more isolated, or wilder area of proper wadi where we found ourselves for about the next 10 km. I found the initial 20 km to be comfortable and was able to maintain a steady pace that saw me overtake a few people, although I also had several people pass me in turn. My feet were feeling good and I once again thanked good fortune that I had discovered Injinji and their incredible socks as they seemed to be my saving grace as far as looking after my feet was concerned.
After the second aid station, which was positioned in a picturesque little farming village and at which I did make a stop, enjoying the orange slices on offer, I did start to feel my legs a little more and on the steeper sections of short climbing elected to walk. I also stopped for a few minutes, not out of fatigue but because the narrow path that climbed up behind and between some buildings had on one side stables and out of two of the open windows popped the heads of some stunning horses. I couldn’t ignore them and so stopped to say hello, enjoying the interaction with my new equine buddies, only spurred on by the voices of another two runners scaling the path behind me. From there the road wound up and down and around the farming community, with cute little stone buildings surrounding cultivated and terraced fields of lush green crops flanked by the razer tipped peaks of the UAE mountains surrounding us. The start of the final descent of this section was marked by a rusty iron gate and once through it was a knee-pounding run down towards a long, straight, somewhat demoralising stretch of main highway running that seemed to coincide with the start of the day’s heat. I was ok for about the first half of this particular section but then felt myself hitting up against a bit of a wall before caving in to temptation and choosing to walk for a bit. A short walk was soon extended at the next to a longer walk and if it were not for the heroic efforts of one runner, Elliot Lewis, and his words of encouragement as I then ran the next twenty or so kilometres with him, I would have had a truly miserable experience and succumbed to the spectre of walking most of the rest of the race. Ultra marathons mess with your head. They’re long enough that to get through them in one piece does require constant thinking, reassessments, personal pep-talking and it is so easy for those voices of doubt to start creeping into your head before screaming at you to ‘just take it easy for a bit’ that they become hard to ignore. It may have been that some decent, motivational music would have helped at this stage, but I had a better option: another runner to keep me motivated and going. That’s another thing I do love about this sport – very rarely do you encounter a selfish athlete who is just interested in themselves and their own race. Most runners genuinely look out for their fellow race-goers and do what they can if they see someone struggling. Did my companion sacrifice some time in order to run with me? I don’t know but the point is that instead of silently cruising past me and leaving me to trudge the trails alone he made the decision to step up to the mark and be the guardian angel that I needed at that particular moment. For that I humbly thank him.
From the prospect of another thirty kilometres of painfully dull trudging in the heat I was instead in the much better position of finding myself approaching the final aid station, just 10km out from the finish, and at this point I felt strong enough to start to up the ante and pace. With the blessing of my running companion for the last 20km I struck out on my own once more and soon found myself rattling along at a blistering pace. What I should have recognised, however, was that it was too fast to be sustained and crushingly after about 5km I found myself hitting yet another wall and once more reduced to a walk-run regime as I gritted my teeth and willed the final few kilometres to pass. Those final few K’s were tough and there were several moments when I found myself talking out loud, admonishing myself for being arrogant and pushing off too hard from the aid station. If i’d maintained better control then I would have found a steady, sustainable pace and been able to at least run the entire final 10km. Still, one learns with every event. One thing I was determined NOT to do was walk over the finish line. Nah! Not going to happen. I was absolutely going to run that and so with the final 1.5km to go I dug in, willed my aching and leaden legs into action and focused on thoughts of the end. The trail entered an area of dunes and so I knew I was close, in addition to the fact that my Suunto told me the same thing, and then out to the right, in the distance I could see the runner ahead of me, Scott, turning into what I knew must have been the finishing chute, a narrow gully between two rocky outcrops that funnelled us to the end. That was all the motivation I needed to be able to punch the metaphorical biological nitrous button and sprint! It’s always amused and frustrated me in equal measure how no matter how done in you are during a race there always seems to be that small reserve of energy that is kept back especially for sprinting to the finish line. A little like always being able to find space for dessert. I could see Lee up on the rock and gave him a thumbs up as I rounded the final corner, saw the archway and locked in. It was done. 50km of running was over and another ultramarathon notched up. I gratefully took receipt of my wooden medal – a nice environmentally friendly spin on the usual metal offering – and waddled over to the gazebo where I earnestly accepted the offer of Coca Cola and some delicious soup! Just what was needed after nearly six hours of being out pounding the trails.
With some sustenance on board and my pack laid to rest I felt significantly better, joining the other runners to have finished in cheering our fellow racers across the line and enjoying the plentiful photo opportunities. One final group pic snapped, with the Urban Ultra goat taking centre stage, and it was back to the car and ultimately Dubai. My best laid plans of a relaxing evening of movie watching and feet up leisure quickly became a case of falling asleep on the sofa and thus marked the end of yet another fun filled yet tough day out on the athletic scene here in the UAE.
Finished in 5 hours, 38 mins and 9 seconds
17th place overall and 12th in my category.
(The winning time was 4’14”59! Staggeringly speedy!)
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!