Friday, 4 September 2015

UTMB 2015: two sunsets and a sunrise

Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc
  • Circumnavigation of the Trail Du Mont Blanc, anti-clockwise from Chamonix, through Italy and Switzerland and back into France
  • 170km/105 miles
  • 10,000 metres/32,800 feet
  • Time limit 46 hours 30 mins


This is what I've trained for all year, since January brought the news I'd been successful in the lottery. But bizarrely, despite the fact I knew this would be the most challenging race I've attempted, and my usual pre-race panics, I wasn't too nervous in the days before. I'd reccied the route several weeks before with Richard and Carrie and had trained hard on hills and endurance for months.

Kit checked, re-checked
I even caught 9 hours sleep the night before, unheard of for me before a big race. Maybe something to do with being somewhere new with so much going on, and in the sun all day. A big group of us had been in Chamonix all week, with plenty (perhaps too much) time to prepare and obsess about kit and final race strategies. This involved last minute purchase of the 12L Salomon s-lab pack when we were advised by the organisers to heed the heatwave forecast and carry 2 litres of water rather than the required 1 litre (my 3l pack only just squeezed in the essential kit and water) and temp-tattooing ourselves with the course profile, which for the UTMB meant a part one and part two on each forearm (thank you Carol for your expert tattooing). I felt ready and truly excited about getting out there and trying to run to my potential on a course I'd seen, that was brutal and beautiful in equal measure. So I was completely mentally unprepared for what was to come so early on in the race, thinking the mental and physical battles would arise much later.

the race route tattoos, which lasted all of two hours
It was hot and we knew it would remain hot, with the mountain forecast expecting 34 degrees all weekend. I tried to stay out of the sun all day Friday ahead of the 6pm start but it even the shade was stifling. After a leisurely lie-in and re-pack of kit, I met Dad and Hazel, who'd come out to support me, for an even more leisurely late lunch. All the sitting around was getting to me and I just wanted to get going so we headed to the start to meet the Scotland crew and Matt Williamson, who was also racing.

The start

Our starting position amid the thousands.
This would be a real race of firsts - the first time I'd experienced real stomach issues in a race, the first time I'd run into two nights, the first time I'd curled up on the side of a trail and the first time for weird after-effects like a bruised head from so much torch-wearing. It was also the first time I'd spent an hour an a half waiting at the start line in order to gain a good position, nicely behind the elites but in front of the hundreds at the middle and back of the pack. Matt and I sat in a shaded spot, trying to avoid being trampled on by runners and their friends dangerously wielding Go Pro's and poles right left and centre. The first time in an ultra this huge, surrounded by 2,300 nervous faces and thousands of supporters, organisers, media everywhere. I glanced up at the packed balconies of the apartments around the start and noticed an eagle. An eagle? No sooner had we saw it than it had been released and swooped right overhead, carrying a camera, to thousands of cheers. The announcers talked of having courage, of keeping going when your body wanted to give up, of using your mind and then your soul. Then came the iconic music, Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, and we were off. Well, off for a walk. I was quickly regretting the decision not to start further up the field as we walked for most of the way out of Chamonix onto the Les Houches trail due to congestion. All the cheers and support along the way were just incredible.

Chamonix - Refuge Croix de Bonhomme
Cumulative distance 44km
Runtime 6hrs 52mins

Day one in my racing mind, given this had been the first day of our
Matt and I about to assume position
four day recce; the first major section to tackle and put behind me. And I felt terrible from a few km's in. I expected to feel fresh and energetic on the first section, a flat-ish 8km trail to Les Houches, but instead by the time we reached the town my stomach was cramping and face felt burning hot. Soon after Les Houches came the first climb, 700m up to the small timing station of Le Delevret and the Col de Voza. Glancing behind me as we reached the top of the climb and the ski lift station, I was taken with the beauty of the shining line of headtorches snaking down the hill, and the setting sun overhead. But as we began the steep switchbacks 900m down into the first town of St Gervais, I didn't feel well at all, with the downhill impact making me feel sick, and I knew I had to stop soon. In fact, over the next two hours I stopped four times and was losing time on my planned splits. I began to accept there was nothing I could do about this, if I was developing some kind of bug or it was food poisoning from lunch then that was that, it wasn't my day and there was no way I could run with this for 100 miles. I thought I'd stick it out until darkness fell though, to see if it would clear up and I could eat (I hadn't eaten anything yet).

After Les Contamines though (4:02, 15 mins off target) it was dark and in a few miles we reached the start of the climb up to La Balme and eventually the Col du Bonhomme, an incredibly long, slow climb that in the recce had become tortuous due to heat, lack of shade and our first day at elevation. I started to feel more in control on the climb, and was awash with relief - maybe this would go and I'd have a chance of continuing. I knew what to expect now, and there would be no sun to contend with. At the La Balme aid station, I could eat well - noodle soup (exactly what I needed) and cups of coke which energised me for the final climb up to the Col and the landmark of the refuge that we'd stayed at on the recce - my favourite refuge of that trip, with a cosy feel, stunning vistas for relaxing outside and great beer. But I had to get those dangerous thoughts out of my head!

Refuge Croix du Bonhomme - Refuge Bertone
From Croix du Bonhomme (taken during recce)
Cumulative distance 84km
Runtime 15hrs 04mins

Onwards - straight through the timing point and headfirst into the steep 5km downhill into the tiny village of Les Chapieux, exactly 50km into the race. There was a decent aid station here and I needed to eat, I wasn't fuelling as I'd promised myself I would. I discovered some Overstim banana and date energy bars, and had more soup, more coke - to become my only staples for the day. I was looking forward to the road section that led gently uphill for several miles outside of the village and up to the next climb up to the Col de la Seigne, the transition point into Italy. My stomach had settled, it was cooler (although not nearly as cool as I'd hoped the night would get) and I could walk/run this section comfortably as a welcome break from technical trail. On the climb I spotted my first fellow no-pole runner, a very rare sight. I was beginning to question my decision by this point. I'd run the entire recce without poles but over 90% of UTMB runners use them and after the stomach issues I'd begun to question my stubbornness and the need for them should something unexpected start to affect me.

I'd hoped there might be a water station or coke at the summit (2507m) but sadly not. 'Welcome to Italy' shouted the volunteers and we were sent down the trail for a short downhill section before the second (and new for this year) climb up to the Col de Pyramides, that Richard, Carrie and I had missed out of our recce in error. And no wonder, it was hardly a trail at all, but a boggy hill climb up and a slippy, technical boulder field descent that never seemed to end. I really needed water by this point but it took over an hour an a half to get down to Lac Combal and the next major aid station. I'd been chatting to a nice English guy called Chris about UK races but
Rich and I at Mont Favre on the recce
began to find it a bit of a struggle to talk constantly as we were negotiating boulder after boulder. In the aid station I sat for five minutes and had a mental check, downing yet more noodle soup (extra salt, cold water for quick drinking), coke and a few pieces of cheese. A rare runnable few miles of flat path came next, to reach the 500m climb to Arete de Mont Favre, another memorable break stop from our recce where we sat and admired stunning afternoon light across Mont Favre and down towards Courmayeur, In fact this had been the last time I'd felt fresh in the recce, right before I sprained my ankle on the descent - after which I was running on very few cylinders for two days!

The dawn was coming and I was looking forward to losing the head torch. Then, no sooner had we left the summit than I slipped on a large slab, left foot sliding beneath me and knee scraping off the ground, tweaking the sprained ankle at the same time. Same descent, another fall! It threw me but I knew it wasn't nearly as bad as the recce. My knee was bleeding down into my shoe though which was off putting. I took the rest of the descent easy, delicately negotiating the steps that had tripped me last time and following behind another female runner who eventually let me past. Courmayeur was a metropolis of an aid station, in the town's sports centre, and I picked up my only drop bag here. Hundreds of runners were properly stopping, sitting at tables with their support, eating pasta, changing clothes. I refilled and grabbed a small plate of pasta to take into the medical tent, where a lovely volunteer cleaned and bandaged my knee and dealt with a blister. I told myself time stopping here was an investment. It was a maze to escape and not clear where to give your drop bag back but a kind supporter took it for me after I'd jogged two circuits of the centre frantically asking people who didn't speak English.

Into the second half/second arm
I prepared myself for what was a brutal climb on the recce, 800m up to what had been our rest point for day two, Refuge Bertone - it had been hot, we'd been running over eight hours and my ankle was huge. And today, I'd been running for over 15 hours, with the sun up and temperature swiftly rising against a deep blue sky, no clouds in sight. I didn't have poles but I had playlists and had planned to let myself listen to music for the first time around halfway so distracted myself with this. Reaching the refuge, I sat for two minutes, forcing down more water and coke.

Refuge Bertone - Champex-Lac
Cumulative distance 125km
Runtime 22hr 54mins

Into 'day three'. Crossing this boundary was a mental boost. From Bertone, a beautiful, gently undulating stretch of trail came next, 8k to Refuge Bonatti - straight through the middle of the giants of the Mont Blanc massif, overlooking the Val Ferret. But there was limited shade and I made the mistake of calculating how many hours of sunlight we had to run through. It was smokin' hot and oppressive. A long line of us were leapfrogging right along this stretch, running at different times and struggling at different times. A sharp 100m climb up to Bonatti sapped enough strength that I needed to sit again and thankfully there was shade in which to refill. Again some soup, again some coke and I tried to eat some Chia Charge. A few more miles along the trail came the steep single track descent into Arnuva, which a more substantial aid station awaited us. Running along the river out of Arnuva was torture, I was tempted to dive in and stay there but settled for a cap soak. The heat was stifling, how on earth would I make it 800m up the shadeless climb to Grand Col Ferret? I hope there'd be a water/coke stop halfway up, at Refuge Elena, where we'd stopped for a break on the recce but there wasn't. There was a water butt in the middle of a field though so we could re-fill and re-soak here. It was a long climb, little by little, and I was passed again and again by multiple men with poles. At the summit, we crossed into Switzerland. I sat on a rock, head in hands, and steeled myself for what would be a quad-crushing 930m descent into an airless La Fouly, it was so tough to get the quads moving but a few minutes into each descent they would ease off slightly and become more bearable.

From La Fouly, a picture-postcard little Swiss hamlet, I was playing the calculation game for arrival into Champex-Lac, I knew it was 14km from here, via another 900m of climbing in the sun, and wondered if I could make it by 16:30, an hour off schedule but still a reasonable time given the conditions we were running in. In La Fouly I lay on a bench and close my eyes but quickly forced myself up. This wasn't a good strategy. Instead, a young volunteer stuck my head under a cold hose and I grabbed more coke, soup and got out of there. The 8k into the small hillside town of Praz de Fort was fairly uneventful and I spent most of the time wondering how I could possibly run a marathon and 3,000m after Champex - always a mistake in ultra running to think that far ahead, but I'd almost resigned myself to stopping. The climb from Praz de Fort was made all the harder for thinking there'd be aid in the town - there wasn't, and I hadn't re-filled water at the last water butt. The kindest runner at the side of the road gave me his, he'd just dropped from the race and was awaiting his lift. I tried to get him moving but he was done.

Finally, the top of the climb into Champex came, and I saw Fiona, Karl Zeiner's girlfriend and support. It was great to see a friendly face. Soon after, I heard Daddy McKay's shouts, it was good to see him after nearly 23 hours on the road and he was so excited to see me. He had a whole array of treats ready, which would normally look appealing. Fresh figs and blueberries? No, can't do it. Bars? Nope, but will stuff yet more in my pack not to be eaten. Water? Hmm. Energy drink? Coffee? Hell no. Chips and salt? Yes! They went down so well, although soon after came the familiar stomach cramps I'd had earlier on. I told Dad I didn't think I could go on but no agreement came. I resorted to peeling off my clothes to change my shorts and top - another first in a race but it felt so good - and Dad fuelled me up, dressed and taped my feet (I'm so sorry Dad), changed my shoes and socks and sent me right back out onto the trail.

Champex-Lac - Chamonix
Cumulative distance 170km
Runtime 34hrs 50mins

My only race pic - sun setting on the second day above Trient
The final 'day' was finally here, with its final countdown of three major climbs totalling nearly 3,000m and a similar level of descent. This was the hardest day of the recce for many reasons but I knew as I'd made it through Champex (where the majority of DNF's happen) that I would do my best to make it to Chamonix, no matter how long it took. It felt good to be chipping away at the distance. As soon as I left the aid I felt uplifted by seeing Dad and taking the time to properly re-fuel. I also started getting lovely, supportive text messages from Carol, Richard, Lorna, Keziah and Dawn after texting Carol at Champex (by supportive I mean 'Don't you DARE drop'). So I could run strong here and passed four or five men until the ascent started again, up to the high alpine pass of Bovine, with its noisy cowbells and relentlessly climbing path. This soon drained the life out of my legs but I spotted a fabulous little branch which I started using as a stick. Pas de baton? asked the French. I didn't care what it looked like - this was helping. I was suddenly in a long string of runners and we faced the most incredible setting sun against the mountain panorama. I even took a photo, my only attempt throughout the race. Up at La Giete there was a timing station and a few runner bodies sleeping under blankets. I began to feel incredibly tired on the descent into Trient, my eyes weren't focusing and my thoughts weren't my own, with random country names running through my head in French. Etats Uni, Royaume Uni. Wonder if the American ladies had finished? Where were the Brits? Were they still out here too? I was talking to the mad commentator in my head and began to feel like I was two people - a new level of sleep deprivation. There were a few ankle twists and a fall, grazing the other knee. Lots of swearing.

The descent into Trient (141km) was nasty - rocky, rooty, dark and longer than I remember from the recce. Runners behind me were throwing my head torch beam off which was constantly disorientating. Dad was there again, we both knew I'd slowed significantly but I was still chipping away and his cheering and hugs gave me another boost. I stopped for 20 minutes here, eating some soup, coke, the usual.

Next came *the absolute worst* climb on two counts: I'd lost my stick so it was my slowest. I was half asleep and hallucinating. I decided half way up the climb to a) find a new stick and b) curl up on the side of the trail for a ten minute sleep. This was inadvisable though because I couldn't find a cosy spot far enough from the trail (steep drops or hill either side) so even when I lay down with torch off, several runners spotted me and approached with 'Ca Va's?' shining their headtorches down on me. I kept thinking I was past Vallorcine and realising I was still above Trient approaching Catogne, the penultimate climb and not the final. Switching my alarm off, I got up again and brushed the spiders and dust away to edge on up towards the summit. At Catogne there was coke and 5km down into Vallorcine.

Another difficult, technical descent which I was barely running down, despite sensing another few female runners around me. I managed to overtake one on the final grassy down into the aid station - and despite being past midnight the cheers, cowbells and support here was just spectacular with people lining the street into the building. Once again my Dad was here, with a huge hug and encouraging words about the final stage, 90% behind me. This didn't sound like enough! I sat for 9 minutes here and promptly felt sick and lightheaded. Up again, I warned Dad I would be a while and to go get some sleep (I later found out my lovely friends took him back to our chalet for a quick sleep on the sofa) and set off along the trail that Richard and I had jogged along on the final home stretch of our recce (it had taken us 3 hours from Vallorcine to Chamonix, it would take me 4.5). In the dark I didn't recognise much until I reached 4k in and the shadow of La Tete aux Vents, the final mountain. The support through the car park beneath was pretty special and I finally forced down the Gu gel I'd been clutching since Vallorcine.

What to say about the endless 900m climb up to La Tete aux Vents, the windy peak. Yes it was breezy, a welcome change to a still-stifling temperature. I hadn't used any of my extra layers throughout the entire race. I found a third stick after discarding the last one on the descent into Vallorcine and set a steady pace, timing sections of 20 minutes on my watch and telling myself after three I'd nearly be there or at least approaching the gentler uphill section after the steep switchbacks. Looking back down was incredible, yet another string of hundreds of headtorches winding back to Vallorcine. Near the peak, cries of 'regardez'. I looked up and an Ibex stood a metre above on a rocky outcrop, looking down on us all as if we were crazy. After I passed by it jumped on to the trail and headed downhill. I dread to think the shock the runners behind would have got coming face to face with it but it was beautiful.

After the peak came an undulating and technical 4k section over to the iconic ski station of La Flegere and the final timing point and aid station. It was far less runnable than I remember, with boulders, loose stones and steep sections but I was on autopilot by now and by the time I reached La Flegere I ran straight through and down to one of the steepest descents of the race - slipping and sliding down to reach a fire road then trail for the final 8k to Chamonix. Again, far more technical than I recall for the first 4k before a more runnable, smoother path through La Florier and down into the town. I thought the tarmac would never come and when it did I realised a sub 35 hour finish was still a possibility. I was running hard for this entire section and passed eight people, reaching my highest speed since 75k into the race.

Soon I was alongside the river and Gavin was there, testing if I could still string a sentence together. The home straight was just a joy, and Keziah thrust the Scotland flag at me to take over the line, crossing in 34 hours and 50 minutes. I had no idea of position throughout and was sure I'd dropped tens of places by struggling on the final climbs (its easy to lose track when people stop for long periods in the aid stations) but I ended up 288th overall, 23rd female overall and 13th senior female.

It was amazing to hear about other finishes, Matt had made it in an incredible 30 hours and Lorna had finished the CCC in a fantastic time of 18 hours the day earlier. I couldn't have been better taken care of out there and at the finish, and the whole experience - however much I struggled throughout - will remain a positive memory. I'm so relieved to have a UTMB finish after working hard for it this year. Thank you to Daddy McKay, Donnie for your coaching and all my friends in Chamonix as well as back home - what a journey and what a community :-)

My full results, including finish video

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A devil of a race

A few race stats:
  • 42 miles from Tyndrum - Fort William
  • 6,000 feet ascent
  • Part of the Triple Crown of West Highland Way ultras along with HOKA Highland Fling and West Highland Way Race
  • New Race Director: the amazing & superhuman Johnny Fling

Tyndrum start: fresh legs & all to play for
I entered late after getting my race dates mixed up. Mrs Impulsive strikes again. For some reason thought the Devil was scheduled a week later so three weeks out and too close to UTMB. Its debatable whether racing four weeks out is even advisable but I've been feeling strong lately and thought I'd give it a go with proviso I wouldn't push through anything too painful or damaging. As it was, the race would be the tame option for that weekend given the weekend training ascent Donnie has been giving me in these peak weeks leading up to UTMB.

Having run the race in 2013 in 7.12 I suspected I'd be more hill fit and consistent this year than back then (in retrospect I was also still recovering from Western States four weeks before, a few weeks later I developed a fibula stress fracture =  a lesson). Privately my hopes were high for a sub 7 finish - although knew also than Johnny's addition of a new hill finish to the route might derail this.

Friday conditions north of Tyndrum
Conditions helping the merry Devil crew set up in Fort William on Friday were APOCALYPTIC. Talking driving, persistent torrential rain. 15 degrees colder than London. And a first foray into marquee erection - some fun team work, I think Alan Sugar would have been impressed.
Weather standards having been pushed as low as they could go, I was pretty happy with the overcast showery conditions Saturday morning brought. No need for a waterproof to start. I also managed one of the best pre-race sleeps I've had, a solid six hours (standard these days).

Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy (7 miles, 47:47)
  • Everything felt good, if taking 20 mins or so to warm into the race and pace properly. I was trying to keep a steady pace but as usual probably set off a little fast, although I could see the bobbing Salomon red of the race winners for all of two minutes. The miles absolutely sped by to Bridge of Orchy and I spent the time organising a mental checklist in my head of what I needed to do before and after each CP to make smooth transitions.

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (10.8 miles, 1hr38)
  • Legs & body - felt strong, didn't have to work too hard on the hill out of Bridge of Orchy and loved the downhill. Ahead of me, Ivor pointed out a stunning rainbow and I gave myself a stern talking to for not having noticed it for staring at my feet - which to be fair was the safer plan in order to run fast down through the loose stones and streams to the road. I did see the darkening clouds beyond and wonder what lay ahead over Rannoch Moor, which I don't think I've ever run in good weather.
  • State of mind - fair to middling! Felt positive running through the checkpoint but very soon after I started to feel the niggle of chafing on my legs, with the under-shorts of the running skirt I was wearing rolling around all over the place. 7 miles in - seriously? I've worn this one so much that it did have a few holes, but I'm not one to throw things out easy. I was totally kicking myself for not having thought it through properly though with today's wet conditions, which can make these things so much worse. Over the next 8 miles it became a constant fixture in my mind and I couldn't do anything about the continual friction. I began asking the guys in front if they had Vaseline, but no, then I began promising myself I'd find some at Glencoe. That or swap shorts with someone.
  • Learnings - 1) Rannoch Moor is a slippy nightmare underfoot when its raining and yes - it always rains on Rannoch Moor 2) Always carry Vaseline 3) A Buff can do a lot but it doesn't really work threaded through shorts to prevent chafing.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (10.5 miles, 1hr46)
Summit of Devil's Staircase: thanks Fiona & Pauline :-)
  • There was no Vaseline at Glencoe. But lots of friendly WHW family faces, in fact it was rather like the who's who of Scottish ultra racing at that checkpoint. I hung out for a few minutes to track some down with Sean the medic extraordinaire and he did his best to hunt but I needed to get going.
  • Leaving the CP physically I felt great still and able to run strong and hard. Seeing Lorna and Noanie at the bottom of the road was another little high. Dipping into the bushes outside Glencoe to see if I could stick compeed on my thighs whilst being attacked by swarms of midges everywhere was not so much. The compeed stayed on for all of five minutes.
  • The Devil's Staircase came and I discovered that uphills are to be treasured as they don't bother the chafing. I love running hills at the moment anyway and have been doing many a weekend of reps on the Devil, Kinlochleven and Ben Lomond so tried to run as much as possible but ran out of steam after a while and hiked hands-on-knees. A guy I passed advised me I should be racing the men as well as the women and that I should try catch the guy in red, four men ahead. It was a nice idea but didn't quite happen. I did pass three guys on the Staircase though before spotting a couple of spectacularly dressed people at the top - Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker. Great to see and gave me quite the lift before the niggling pain returned to say hello for the miles of rocky downhill to midge-infested Kinlochleven.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra (7 miles, 1hr 23)
  • Well the kind folks at KLL found me some Vaseline and Bodyglide (thanks Matt and lady I don't know the name of!) and this was reassuring for a short while but it was too late and made little difference. I was actually wondering whether this would affect me finishing, I felt like it was slowing me down from my potential. Like the other checkpoints, I grabbed supplies for en route and ate fairly well (coconut & chia flapjack, banana, juice) before heading for the final of the three major hills of the race.
  • I enjoyed the climb and fast-hiked/jogged as I could manage up onto Lairig Mor. Memories from the recent West Highland Way Race and support running with Jamie Aarons up here flooded my mind and I channeled her strength. After the steep climb, the gentle uphill undulations seemed to go on for an age but I was willing them to continue as it didn't hurt as much.
  • There were heaps of walkers out, colourful waterproof backpacks bobbing ahead and I dodged them with the puddles to some lovely supportive cheers. I was five minutes slower than I hoped to reach the small CP of Lundavra but told myself I could still manage a sub-7. It was back on in my head - close enough to grit the teeth and just ignore the layer of skin I was missing. After a quick fix of coke and hello's with the marshalls I set off for the final section.

Lundavra to Fort William (7 miles, 1hr 08)
  • Remind me to never live in FW, wettest place in the UK by many accounts. A microclimate of monsoon. The heavens opened on this section but it didn't really matter now. Having recently run the short sharp hills out of the CP into (what used to be more of) a forest and beyond I knew what to expect and counted them down one by one. Some I was good to run and some not. I had no idea where second lady was, no one at any of the CP's had known, so for all I knew she was minutes behind, I couldn't slow down now.
  • But soon came the winding single track uphill that wound up at the fire road, sooner than I thought, and I glanced at my watch. 6.12. With what I calculated as 7k to go - I was going to have to push this. I ran as hard as I could down the 5k road of downhill, ticking the k's off one by one, to a soundtrack of Moderat and Royskopp.
  • Finish in the fields: 6:45, 1st lady &12th overall
  • I knew John had changed the finish from a mile flat on road to a mile of climb/sharp downhill so the finish could be in playing fields of the leisure centre, a great improvement with heaps of space for spectators and finish tents. A slow mile and I was so surprised to look once again at the watch upon seeing the finish line from high above and see that I may be able to still aim for a 6.45. And I made it, crossing the line across the flooded fields in exactly that time, most of the pain forgotten - especially when presented with John and family's incredible veggie chilli and a cup of tea. Although I lasted all of two minutes in the shower. Seriously - no pain like it since the post-Western States shower!

I love this race. Like many, after running longer races it feels like a dream to be able to push more through this course, and the trail is just so beautiful in whatever the conditions throw at us. We may have low standards for weather but the Devil leaves you incredibly high standards for all-round trail beauty and superb and seamless race directing, not to mention the Scottish trail community. Thank you to every one of the marshals and support and coach Donnie for all the support and pushing me. Congrats to Donnie and Casey Morgan for their joint first finish!

Lessons learnt though, you think you've got it sorted after a few years of ultra racing but you can still get it wrong. Never take the small stuff, preparation and kit testing for granted. That said, I couldn't have wished for a better result and still shocked to have run the second fastest female time in the race's history (Devil finisher PB spreadsheet here, thanks John Kynaston).

Men's overall winners
Joint first: Donnie Campbell and Casey Morgan 5:28
Third: Kevin O' Donoghue 5:46

Women's overall winners
First: Caroline McKay 6:45
Second: Nicola Adams-Hendry 7:27
Third: Lynne Allen 7:36

Full results are here

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

17 hours of Skye Trail

After a six month blogging hiatus, I decided the Skye trail ultra is one adventure I want a record of, and others might too given its the first year its been held. Skye is one of three races I'm focusing on for 2015; a new less-is-more strategy for me to change things up from racing too much.

I'd signed up after reading about the difficulty and elevation of the trail. Advertised at 69 miles (but closer to 74, and only if you go the right way!) and just under 4,500 metres of ascent, it would be quality mileage ahead of UTMB this August. Fitness levels were on the whole good going into it, albeit a few minor niggles which I'd seemed to iron out. I'd had a strong Fling and felt great to the end of Loch Katrine marathon where I ran a PB. But other forms of preparation - those helpful things called sleep, rest and relaxation - didn't feature in my world over the last month or so. A case of everything happening at once, back to back weekends away and change in job with 5am wake-ups every day for weeks.

The fabulous Jamie Aarons and I drove up to Skye a few weeks before the race to recce the first and most difficult part including the Trotternish ridge and had the best and the worst of conditions; 8 hours of ridge to Portree in stunning sunshine on the Saturday followed by 3 hours in howling winds and torrential rains from Portree to Sligachan on the Sunday. The weekend also featured car camping, hours of hitchhiking back north in the pouring rain (eternally grateful to the Australian tourists who took pity on us and turned around to squeeze us in to their super-packed car), broken windscreen wipers and a mad French hitchhiker who told us he'd been 'hijacking' cars all the way from the north - but that's another post in itself!

After the recce I'd asked Jeff if he'd consider changing the logistics of registration to it having to be in the south of the island (Broadford) after midnight on the day of the race - with start time at 5am in the north (Duntulm) - and was very grateful when he offered earlier registration options for the afternoon so we could then go stay up north and get a night's sleep before the start. I think a night without sleep before even starting the ridge would not have made for a happy race for me and I ended up getting over 5 hours on Friday - probably a record for me pre-ultra. Matt, Dawn and I stayed in Staffin and lovely Dawn ferried us to the start in the middle of nowhere (sorry Duntulm) where we gathered shivering in the midsummer early morning. Freezing! And much breezier than forecast! But the ridge ahead was free of cloud and the rain was holding off so I was happy. If it had been Friday's conditions I'm not sure I would have started, having seen what was to come on the ridge.

Duntulm - Portree (26ish miles, 2,447 metres ascent)

Trotternish ridge, taken during recce
The route sets off a mile or so along an undulating single track road to reach a sharp right turn up to a track and over into the first trail-less section, a few km's of ankle-eating bog and heather. I knew what to expect and for the first in many occasions over the next 7 hours was so thankful we'd recced. I ran with Matt and Ross but as we ascended up to Sror Vourlin, the first steep section of ridge, I held no illusions about staying with them. Mark Hartree was behind me and took the lower traverse, therefore skipping ahead of me as I ran across the ridge. I then proceeded to go the wrong way - as Jamie and I did in the recce - as I just couldn't see the god damned low path we were meant to take past the Quirang. Cursing myself and seeing that several guys had followed me up there I just gritted my teeth and made headway across the top and down the slip-sliding descent - sliding sideways into bog and  to the only road crossing on the ridge until Portree, where Jeff, Fiona and Pauline had set up a water stop. I think this is the only ultra I've been given water in a china tea mug and it was awesome.

After this came miles of up-down-up-down, featuring steep climbs up a few Grahams and other wee hills (Biode Buidhe, Beinn Edra, Sgurr a Mhadaigh Ruaidh, Hartaval, The Storr, Ben Dearg and A Chorra Beinn). Again, these climbs were expected and seemed to pass so much quicker than in the recce. Sadly there were no picnics on the peaks as Jamie and I enjoyed in the sparkling sunshine that day.

The sections on the ridge tops between the hills were in parts blissful - although cloudy there were still beautiful views with the ridge stretching miles ahead, and Lewis, Harris and the Uists to the right. But it sure was windy. Some of the route looks far more runnable on map than it actually is, as even on the flats/downhills you sink deep into bog and have to jump between clumps of heather to get across.

When we approached A Chorra Beinn I felt in much better shape than I had on the recce - having tackled it shortly after the Fling and struggled with energy at points. I knew we had to traverse around it and told Mark Caldwell as much, who was running close by. Despite this we saw a few guys right up ahead scrambling up the crags of the peak, it looked super steep and I didn't fancy it at all so stuck to the traverse. After this you have to head back up high to meet the ridge again and a few bog dives were to follow as my legs grew tired of the constant battle through it. Shortly after came the crazy boggy few miles descent into Portree, I was glad to have Mark there for some chat and distraction through this and was delighted we were on for six hours approaching the town, when during recce it had taken 8.

Portree - Sligachan (12 miles, 370 metres ascent)
After a few minutes refuelling at the CP, which was manned by Jeff, Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker and based at the south end of Portree at Aros Heritage Centre, I set off along the few miles of waterlogged coastal estuary to reach the longest road section of the course. 10k until another 5k of gnarly coastal trail to Sligachan. I normally hate tarmac but here it was bliss. No bog scrambling, no ankle twisting and some gentle inclines to break up the monotony. But here I felt the first tweaks of my IT band on the downhills and had the sinking feeling that I was only 30 miles in and it was early to be having this type of pain. It was unlikely to get any better and I was beginning to significantly favour my right side  - would I have to pull out later on? It had bothered my a few weeks back in the Pentlands when I'd cut a run short and having rested for a good few days I'd hoped it'd cleared up.

Soon I was back on the 5k coastal trail skipping over stones and streams and seeing Sligachan sparkling at the other side of the bay - when Jamie and I had run this last time it was grim, high winds, torrential rain and much like running up a river, so anything was better and I knew not to expect a fast section.

Sligachan CP at the hotel was a peaceful stop, just with one marshal to greet me. I ate well here again - nuts, banana, Dawn's amazing flapjacks - and forced myself along for the section I had never been on and was most looking forward to.

Sligachan - Elgol (12 miles, 570 metres ascent)

In Jamie's words the first section, around 8 miles to Camusanary, was "beautiful and runnable, but basically like running through a river with stones of various sizes underneath. You're going through the valley of cuillins, going somewhere only your feet can take you. Pretty special". And it was. Gorgeous single track, surrounded on all sides by imposing, dramatic mountains. By now mid afternoon, the sun made an unexpected appearance and it was all of a sudden pretty warm. I could see the bobbing red top of Carnethy's Mark Hartree and I was sure I could catch him...he seemed to be slowing. But before long my ITB was nagging at me badly and it was me who was steadying my pace and all consumed with it mentally.

I reached the cottage at Camusanary and knew I had to take the left hand fork of the trail, where it soon led up and away from the shore. Unfortunately in a few hundred metres there was another junction, with one wide well-trodden trail winding up into the hills and another faint path carrying on around the coast. I took the wide one for half a km or so before realising it wasn't right, the path led right away from the coast, not just above it like the correct one was meant to. If this weren't enough I stepped in a boggy puddle so deep that it splashed right over my head, covering myself in rank water and losing my soft flasks in the process. Fishing them out I headed uphill to the crazily narrow path, which was barely joggable due to steep drop offs, boulders and overhanging trees and undergrowth. I was losing time here and constantly re-working targets in my head. I met a couple of lovely walkers heading towards me who shouted that Elgol was a km away - thank the lord  - and soon I dropped out onto a steep road descent down to the bay where the CP was. For once I let myself sit down in the camp chair and breath. I think this was Lois Simpson's cunning plan to lure runners into staying longer and giving her some chat  - she had been on her own for an age and was so cheery, it was great to chat after running in solitude for 12 miles and knowing I had over 22 still to go on my own. I re-fuelled well again and pulled myself up to start along the road.

Elgol - Broadford (23 miles, 1077 metres ascent)
I suddenly realised my ITB had gone silent and thanked my body. Again, this section was one I hadn't recced and was curious about as I knew it had a decent level of ascent and seemed a very long split to negotiate and navigate when at my most tired of the day. But I loved the first four miles, a few undulating on the road before hitting a rough forestry track past cool woods and fields, then a long climb on road again. I was still running the road climbs, much preferable than stopping and starting. The first tricky section was also the first I'd seen marked with signage, a left turn off the road past Kirkibost to a faint path leading up the side of forestry. After a mile or so what path there was next to the forest was entirely blocked by felled trees. One I could squeeze under only to become trapped in between several more which were completely impassable. Having had the signage point us this way I wondered if Jeff knew these trees were down and where we were supposed to go - I decided against heading the wrong direction into thick forestry and instead clambered up the tall deer fence to the right, before having to clamber back over it further down the line to search for the trail again. It kept petering out and I could only hope - backed up by the map - that I was heading in the right general direction, reassured a few miles later when I ended up back on a defined track winding gently downhill to the road across the bay from Torrin. Soon I could see Mark ahead again stopped at an extra water station Jeff had organised, manned by John Munro. Before I could reach it he'd set off again, I'm sure my presence was helping his pace and he was trying to avoid being chicked. John gave good pointers on the route ahead, re-filled my water and I grabbed another flapjack and banana. Just over a half marathon to go.

Another few miles into the small village of Torrin and a long, slow climb on the road up to a right turn after the quarry, after taking too early a right turn and having to ask a farmer I discovered the correct turn was actually signposted for the race too. This road led a mile down to another stretch of coastal path and a final 8 miles to Broadford, varying between track, trail, beach and final climb across a hillside.

From the road, 3 miles took me to Suisnish and a farm where the path played another disappearing act - after a few minutes of faffing about up and down a field I spotted a fairly obvious path over a fence at the top of the hill and with a sigh of relief got going again. This beautiful single track rose above some dramatic beaches, rock formations and waterfalls and reminded me of the coastal trail from Pennyghael to Carsaig on Mull. Another few miles and I'd reached the ruined village of Boreig, and here I knew there was significant climb before reaching 'the best 7k of your day' as Jamie had put it, into Broadford. Not a soul around here, just an audience of sheep and their lambs lining the trail and racing away. Traversing around Boreig I took what I thought was the right path up a hill but the path quickly became rocky and scrambly and I found I was completing a circle of this hill - with dismay I saw a few hundred feet below what looked like a wider path running next to the river, which I should have been closer to. Down I scrambled, through the most razor blade heather I'd experienced all day. My legs were shredded and by the time I finished I looked like I'd had a few bloody falls.
Matt and I at finish (he'd been there a while!)

The 7k didn't disappoint, it was special - either flattish or downhill, like the Larig Mor but easier to run on. It was after 9 and the sun was setting across Broadford bay ahead. I knew my multiple detours had taken away my chances of finishing in the 16 hour bracket but I covered the section in 35 mins and my legs felt strong. I finished in Broadford in 17:00 on the nose, first girl and sixth overall. And met by Helen, Fiona, Pauline, Matt and Dawn - what a amazing welcoming committee they were! I was delighted for Matt, who won in an impressive 13:56, with Ross Christie second in 14:50 and James Killingbeck and Bryan Grant joint third 16:05. Annie Garcia was second lady in 23:39 and Angela Bronn third 23:55. I'm still amazed by the selfless support given by Jeff and all the marshals, they were up for the entire weekend with no sleep whatsoever and were cheerful right to the end - I know which I'd find harder. Thank you guys :-)

Tips for the race if you fancy it in the future....recce recce recce...get sleep before...soak up the solitude...look up and all around you, its one special island (a close second to Mull of course!)

And Mark Hartree....until next time!

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...