Saturday, 25 November 2017

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 in Edinburgh, three days after falling so hard on pavement after the first frost that my knee ballooned purple. I hadn't run more than 3 hours in a single run since the UTMB, and had struggled with training motivation, fatigue and filling life so full of priorities that at times I was breathless with self-imposed pressures. My preparation for this race was far from ideal and I tempered my expectations. Start slow, expect the struggle and stay with it.

Blindingly bright floodlights filtered across the field, lighting registration tents and an aid station. Yup, really; this race has pro facilities before you even set off. Coffee, fruit, bagels and peanut butter together with supplies of Scratch labs energy drink (my new favourite electrolyte. Sorry Tailwind, it's just not working anymore). And for the first time I've seen in any race there seemed to be enough Portaloos provided for runners, something to write home about indeed. 600 anxious bodies huddled around huge patio heaters  spread across the field, waiting for the 5am start and Dean Karnazes to appear for the motivational speech. The RD wasn't wrong when he warned it would be cooler pre-dawn in Marin than San Francisco. The colder we got, the harder I knew it would be to start sensibly slow. I'd been warned by coach Ryan Gelfi that starting paces are suicidal, so I wanted to stay away from the first hundred or so runners, at least. Dean appeared, sending us luck and strength on his local trails. Actually, I have no idea what he said, due to the buzz of nervous chatter on all sides.

Off we went. Leaving tarmac and light behind for darkness, a dusty trail and the first long climb of many, out of Sausalito. I've been coming to Northern California most years since 2010 and am head over heels in love with this state; the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, pacific coastline, unbelievable marine life and character of San Francisco, unique as cities go. I'd wanted to run on the Marin County trails for years, but was distracted by other challenges in the mountains. Here I was finally, with no shortage of passion for this place yet zero experience of what the trails were really like, where to push and where to ease back.

Ryan's course preview helped hugely, he gave me an account of what to expect from personal experience running the race several years back. So his words were fresh in mind, from the early miles until a milestone climb at mile 19, that the first four climbs were easiest and I shouldn't have a problem running them. I largely did, a snail's pace at times trying to run within a sustainable limit. As predicted, I was far from bursting with energy and strength, legs heavy and strength of mind wavering. The gradients were runnable, certainly more runnable than UTMB, but herein lay the pressure. Everyone running everything! No mental or physical breaks on the climbs, and when it came to the downhill sections that would otherwise provide the respite needed to recharge for another climb, my knee bothered me and I was fully focused on avoiding falls. If you like a level gradient in your ultra, don't sign up here. The course really has zero sustained flat ground, save a mile or two after the rolling Muir Woods section at mile 38 and before the finish in Crissy Field. What it does have is luxurious, butter-smooth trail over open, rolling hills, down dry and shady forest trails and dropping to white sand coves, with some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline I've seen.

On the climb out of Tennessee Valley, mile 13, I finally gave myself a hiking break. These climbs were starting to tear apart my morale already and I didn't feel much of the grit and confidence I had during UTMB. And then we hit the summit before the descent to Muir Beach, at mile 17. Simple beauty, almost too much to take in. It felt a crime to keep running and not savour the panoramic pacific seascape that stretched for miles ahead. I had stopped to take photos earlier, when the sun rose over the San Francisco skyline, and did so again. What the hell, I'm here to enjoy it and a few photo breaks aren't going to make or break my race or place, most probably.

Ryan had said that the climb up to the first pass through Cardiac aid station from mile 19-23 was the longest of the route, and I had this target to preserve and pace myself for. As it started, I reminded myself not to panic that it already felt a struggle. It takes a while to warm back into a climb and once you get going your body adapts and the inner metronome takes over soon enough. The narrow single track trail transitioned to an endless series of switchbacks up the mountain. If this was UTMB...I kept thinking. I'd be hiking hard, poles in hand, committed to a long climb and knowing exactly what was ahead. I suddenly felt the stark absence of poles, and realised what an unhelpful loop of thinking my comparisons to UTMB were. Back to the switchbacks, one by one. If I'm strong I should start passing other 50 milers here, Ryan had forecast. No sooner had I started on the switchbacks than a crowd of chatty runners appeared behind. Being a narrow section, passing was tough so a frustrating stop-start ensued to let them pass. I re-focused. The next set of switchbacks, keep a strong core, keep my head up into the climb. Another hoarde of runners approached, like a herd of charging buffalo. Am I crawling up this? I let them pass. Then yet another 10 or so women danced past, stride smooth and moving efficiently up the trail, as if it were a 10k race. I cast a sideways glance at the next guy passing and noticed his bib, blue for 50k. I'd totally forgotten about the 50k. Turns out it had started a few hours after us, bypassing the first loops of our course and passing through Tennessee at 3.5 miles. So they were just a few miles in, joining our course for several sections before we split. I felt better, but still had passed very few 50 mile runners. Onwards, and finally to the top of the four mile climb and start of a rocky, rooty, woodland descent to Stinson Beach. I found myself able to have more fun down here than I'd thought, passing a few women - including an incredibly noisy one who I am sure spurred speed in many a runner around that section - and a few guys, to reach Stinson and 27 miles.

After Stinson came the first of the much steeper, more technical second half climbs, with deep, slippery wooden stairs set into the hillside. And so began the power hiking. I had known this would come and enjoyed backing off the pedal and settling into a hike. I'd eaten fairly well so far and took the opportunity to take on another Torq gel. So far I'd had a Torq every hour, small bites of flapjacks, a few aid station salt-dipped potatoes and a few slices of banana (whilst wishing aids would just give out whole bananas, the blackening slices always less than appealing), as well as a lot of Scratch drink, still tasting great at mile 30.

Back at Cardiac, I ditched my Salomon gaiters, which kept popping off (despite seeing me through all the UTMB training, they now have a need to escape) and messed around with my drop bag to find some inviting fuel. Giles appeared re-applying sunscreen and I asked if he wanted to run together. I had a stark absence of chat but thought we could push the pace better together. Leaving Cardiac I was looking forward to what sounded like a beautiful 8 mile section through Muir Woods, which was advertised in San Francisco as a stunning place to experience the Marin headlands. The forest was cool and peaceful and I felt the rare fire of endurance for the next few miles. The sort where you feel your energy is boundless and you can pass runners again and again without emptying the tank. Unfortunately my tank was finite. By mile 34 I was struggling up short, sharp climbs again and feeling the fire retreat, despite eating and drinking well. Giles took the lead and I followed for a while, until we popped out next to a road for a mile, the reprieve of runnable flat terrain on tarmac and then on singletrack through thick vegetation. And then there we were back at Muir Beach, mile 39. A few seconds of refilling and refuelling and onwards for another 3 mile section to the penultimate aid. And a stinger of a steep climb from here, the one we'd cruised down much earlier as the backdrop of deep blue ocean opened up for the first time. It was a testing hike, with a few short sections of easier ground in between consistently steep rollercoaster hills.

When we reached Tennessee Valley aid for the second time at mile 40 I was not in great mental shape, having a sense of humour failure at my performance and time slipping by. I knew I could finish a 50 miler so was questioning what I have to prove and why I brought myself here. My right IT band was nagging and my quads toasted. I usually love the feeling of pushing on tired legs in the late stages of an ultra but couldn't seem to tap into that feeling no matter how hard I tried. I'd also miscalculated and thought we had 6 miles to run from here rather than 8. So sub 9.30 was no longer possible. The A goal of sub 9 had slipped out of grasp hours ago. The final major climb leaving Tennessee Valley is a smooth dirt track, and Ryan had said if I was able to run this rather than hike I'd be doing brilliantly. A few short stints of jogging were possible but that was about it. A few guys passed and we kept leap frogging until the final aid station at Alta, where I still felt shocking but decided to push with all I had for the final 6 miles to reach and cross the Golden Gate bridge. 

The trail to reach the bridge access point was nothing short of breathtaking. Winding single track with the towering curves of international orange framing the sky ahead, and the greenspace of San Francisco's Crissy Field and Golden Gate park beyond. On the bridge we were silenced by the roar of traffic and gentle upwards curve of the pavement. It ain't flat! At 1.7 miles long, I left the last of my energy there as we were directed towards the seafront bike trail for the final few miles to the finish in Crissy Field. I pushed hard until we reached the finish, crossed the line with Giles in 9 hours 42 minutes, 150th overall and 31st female, 10th in age category.

With perspective, my race reminds me of the Rules of Being Human (see below): "There are no mistakes, only lessons. Lessons are repeated until they are learned. Learning lessons does not end". Sometimes I feel I have gained mastery over my body and it can perform to my expectations. Sometimes it does not, and it's important to question why and learn from this. Negative thought patterns, IT band issues, general exhaustion do not have to be par for the course, and send me a clear message that to perform at my best this late in the year I needed to allow myself more space for training and preparation, both emotionally and physically. And maybe not fly out with less than a day to adapt to a new time zone. Somewhere between finishing UTMB and November I lost the love of climbing that summer training gave me. After such positive gains in strength from long training weekends in the alps I'd pushed my boundaries enough to enjoy and excel at long, demanding climbs by the time UTMB weekend rolled around. I didn't have the time or the training ground to recover and excel again for TNF. I'm taking away positives too; that it is in fact possible for me to get round a complicated loop course without taking a wrong turn (thanks to incredible course markings); run 50 miles without falling; and know without doubt what my body and mind needs over the next months.

Within half an hour of finishing TNF I was compulsively shaking and curled on the dirt next to an aid table, unable to stand for lightheadedness and waves of nausea. Giles took care of me, collecting drop bags and generally being superhero support despite having raced 50 miles hard himself. I'm pretty sure this is postural hypotension, and I've only ever had it after 100 mile races, West Highland Way and Western States. It's symptomatic enough that my body was working on overtime for this race. It may be connected only to pushing beyond comfort for the final few miles, blood pressure up and heart working overtime, before the sudden stop and no cool down whatsover. No doubt I'll now be aware of this in future races, and try to keep moving over the line to slow the pooling of blood in the legs and make every effort to claim that finish line beer!

A huge thanks goes to Ryan at Trails and Tarmac for keeping me accountable all year long, it's been an adventure. To Giles for looking after me, sacrificing his own post-race treats. And to all the wonderful race staff whose cheer made a difference to some dark places.

Full results here.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Stick-to-it-iveness: UTMB 2017

Trudging up a steep trail of mud and slick rock, head bowed against driving rain and hemmed in between male runners continually surging past towards the 2,500 metre Col du Bonhomme. I am always struggling here. And it's barely 25 miles into the race. Mental inventory: what's up with me?

Friday, 6.30pm. I had a strong start, edging into the first 150 runners after the elite pen, in a starting field of over 2,500. I'd learnt from 2015, any further back and I'd be walking out of Chamonix. We were a nervous, fidgeting crowd. Raw emotions and hopes. As Conquest of Paradise blasted out I felt calmer than I'd expected, stomach still, breath steady. Ready. We left Chamonix, eating into the 105 mile, 30,000 ft circle around Mont Blanc. Most of us wouldn't return until Sunday, and 850 of us would drop along the way.

As we headed along the flattest section of the trail to Les Houches, I kept a steady and measured pace. This year, no pushing on the short, sharp undulations, let others pass by. The spectator crowds blew me away. Despite a far from ideal forecast, people lined the streets many deep and late into the evening in Chamonix, Les Houches, St Gervais and Les Contamines to cushion our journey into the high mountains.

The first climb, a steep and rocky ski road up to Le Delevret, high above St Gervais, was smooth and I let what felt like 100 men pass by. I was fuelling early and often and felt strong until the deep mud up to Les Contamines began to steal my confidence and energy. People still passed me by the dozens and I longed for the peaceful later sections where egos and eagerness would have diminished, along with the constant scrape scrape of poles and sounds of human effort. Even 'allez, allez' began to grate, I needed some space and silence and perhaps the next climb would bring it.

Back on the climb to the Col du Bonhomme, the wind was whipping and rain began pounding, distorting the beams of headtorch light. I reminded myself - deal with every issue as it arises, and they will be temporary only. Physically I know I can do this. Up at the Col conditions were truly wild. I'm lucky to experience the UTMB in two years of opposing weather; in 2015 it was baking hot and today it was wintery and wild, much like Scotland. In 2015 by this point I'd already had 5 toilet stops with demoralising GI issues, this year I'd had none - so get on with it. It's just weather.

The technical ridgeline trail to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme was especially hardcore; a few miles of suck-it-up wind chill and ankle-bending rock. Nobody stopped along these high points, it was a race of endurance to each descent. I stopped drinking and eating and felt the effects of this 5km later in the valley, Les Chapieux. I had problems to solve quickly in the aid station; my back, just 28 miles in, was badly chafed by the bottom of my pack. Perhaps my pre-race routine was not diligent enough. I didn't feel like eating and one of my gaiters kept popping off, meaning many quick stops. A few minutes of re-applying anti-chafe, forcing calories down and a toilet break and I was back on the short road section out of the tiny village, kept company by a friendly, chirpy Australian girl called Robyn, who ran an incredible debut to finish 10th.

Over the next few hours over the Col de la Seigne my mind and stomach fell apart  temporarily. I can't explain why I wasn't eating properly, I know better. I began to feel nauseus and lacking. Yet more men came marching past and icy showers met us higher on the col. No hanging around here. I silently thanked the UTMB organisers for cutting the next technical climb to Pyramids Calcaires (which does seem an illogical detour off the TMB at any time). At Lac Combal I had a word with myself, I must fuel properly no matter how little I want to. So I ate well here, almond bars, soup and some Coke for the first time.

It wouldn't be long before the sun came up but the next few hours before dawn were bitterly cold on the 500m climb up to Arete de Mont Favre - one of the most breathtaking vistas on the course. Now just a 7km undulating then steep descent down into Courmayeur. The field was mercifully thinning and less men were charging by. 'Run mindful' mantras ran through my mind constantly as I passed technical sections of trail where in the past I've fallen or sprained an ankle. The descent was a joy this time around. Would Liz meet me in Courmayeur? I'd said I didn't need anyone but secretly hoped she would be there for ten minutes of human connection and a smooth transition.

And there, outside the sports centre, she was, cheering and positive. I had no idea where I was in the ladies field but reckoned nowhere near the top 30, yet Liz told me I was closing a gap to reaching it, and Sally McRae had left the aid ten minutes earlier. I ate well - pasta and rehydration salts - and re-stocked with gels and bars for the next long stage. In 2015 it was 11 hours from here until Champex Lac and my crew.

On a good day, I love the steady dry switchbacks up to Refuge Bertone, a halfway landmark from fun recce weekends, and enjoyed a laidback chat with a guy from Montana and then Amy Sproston. Amy had already passed me no fewer than four times in the last 20 miles, continually having to stop due to GI issues but running an inspirational pace with a smooth and strong gait in between. It was surreal being around world class runners and I felt detached, like I was in a different race. Towards the top of the climb I passed Sally McRae, who seemed to be battling some issues.

It was extremely cold up there on the ridge between Bertone and Bonatti, a favourite section of fairly runnable single track. Bonatti would be a milestone, where I'd said I'd text Liz and Giles an update. Now I had elites chasing me and was entering the thick of the race, just over halfway which I always feel is harder mentally than the latter sections. So far to go, hard to run the inclines, getting tough to stop and start constantly, fuel is entirely unappealing, runners starting to drop at checkpoints.

We ran out of Italy and into a storm. After Arnouvaz, thick clouds formed and a brutal wind picked up, throwing down hard showers of hail and, higher up, snow, just as I set foot on the Grand Col Ferret climb. I can't stand running in waterproofs but had no option but to stop and put on pretty much all my spare kit. It felt like a slow climb, with all of my focus taken on moving forward into the wind and not much left for eating and drinking. The col was beautiful, dusted with fresh snow and surrounded by a skyline of white peaks.

On the way down to La Peule I passed several women but still felt slow. Every time I took off my waterproof the rain would start again. At La Fouly I took care of myself properly knowing I would spiral if I didn't; salty crackers and cheese, soup and coke restored me a little. As I left I saw Sabrina Verjee, recent Lakeland 100 winner, just behind me. It was soon apparent that the route from La Fouly to Praz de Fort had also been changed, and instead of the riverside trail and narrow singletrack through the forest we were re-directed 7km along the main road. I loved it and ran well, the road was nothing short of a respite. As we finally left it to rejoin the trail at Praz de Fort I felt surprisingly upbeat, excited even. Just another few miles to the climb I'd grown to love up to Champex, and my crew. Sabrina caught me and it was refreshing to talk to her on the ascent, which was a mudbath. I felt almost deliriously positive but worried a crash may follow so forced a chocolate flapjack down. If in doubt, eat.

It was amazing to see Giles and Liz and in the warm madness of the huge marquee I attempted to change clothes, socks, deal with chafing, eat, drink and talk, a messy whirlwind. They'd brought an impressive savoury selection and quiche and rice salad tasted so good. I left in just under 20 minutes ahead of Sabrina and got into a good stride after the road climb out of the town. The miles to Plan De L'eau melted away and I knew I could take on the climb, the first of the final three. I knew it well now, its brutally steep rocky sections but the gentler switchback reprieves that came after. Up above on the ridge the brightness in the sky gave me a new confidence, reminding me that by this stage in 2015 I was running into the twilight. Next came more mud, technical rooty descent and being saved again and again by poles. From Champex to the finish last year took 12 hours, with this section to Trient taking 4. In the recce Jamie and I had taken 3 so I knew I could improve here and capitalise on how I was feeling. It felt amazing to run into Trient in 3 hours 11 minutes and this stoked the fire to finish as fast as I could. On the last mile into the aid I passed Magda Boulet and Amanda Basham although I didn't register who they were at the time.

12 minutes in the tent: potatoes, raclette, rehydration salts, painkillers - G & L had it all! Together with my iPod fired up for the first time I felt ready for the penultimate 900m climb up to Les Tseppes. Marching up the track to the start of the switchbacks, I could hear Magda, Amanda and KC Lickteig behind me, forming a team and chanting "two more climbs". They were upbeat and I let them pass, their pace was inspiring but I wanted my own space and to keep my own. I was comforted by comparing my state tonight to the state I was in here two years ago, when I'd tried unsuccessfully to snooze at the side of the trail. The descent finally came around, bringing with it deep pole and ankle-sucking mud and horizontal rain. Visibility was terrible and it was all I could do to stay on the trail with a very slow jogging pace. Grit flew everywhere and it was hard to fuel myself and keep focus so I just concentrated on small sections; the muddy mountain bike switchbacks; the rooty flatter section to the ski lifts marking the border back into France; the rocky few km's of ski road; the final technical rocky descent into Vallorcine. I arrived in 2.40, well below my 3 hour target, overjoyed but shaky and undernourished.

Giles was purveyor of the saltiest fries I've ever eaten - tasted amazing - and together with Liz worked to re-stock and refuel me for the final push, the re-routed section from Col des Montets through to Tre-le-Champs and up to Flegere. Sabrina was back and we worked together until the Col but as we started up the difficult ground I felt the first struggles of sleep deprivation and was weaving around the trail with many an involuntary thought popping into my head. I got music back on and tried to get into a steady stride. The normal race route to Flegere is a continuous climb but this new route had us climbing 300m before dropping almost to Argentiere and climbing another 500m from there. The less said about this section the better, it sapped all I had mentally and physically. Several folk became concerned on the descent that we were off route, that we'd followed OCC signage rather than UTMB. A group of us called race control and then Gavin, who'd run the CCC, and both confirmed we were on the right course. We'd wasted 20 minutes standing still and I was kicking myself for not being assertive and carrying on, as I'd never doubted the UTMB course markings before - they were nothing short of exceptional throughout.

I cracked on, burning through with a reserve energy I didn't know I had. An hour later we reached a long stony ski road and I knew we were close. Thick fog and neon course markings distorted my view and I felt like we were on another planet. Every time we saw a new light I was sure it was Flegere, and every time it was another course marking. We were now a pack of runners, talking in Spanish, English and French but working together. But here was Flegere finally, a ghostly tent on vast grey terrain. I was done stopping and starting so walking right through to start the descent.

My memory of the 8km down to Chamonix is of pure endurance section by section. After 3km of technical rooty, slippy trail comes La Floria, after which the technicality eases significantly. Then a runnable but rocky fire road and, eventually, the final 1.5km road loop through Chamonix to reach the finish line. I remember zoning back into my body with a jolt, feeling like I'd not been in my own head for minutes. How was my body still running on it's own? A strange and incredible autopilot had kicked in to seemingly save my last remaining energy.

In Chamonix I wanted to smile, laugh and cry but my internal zombie runner was now in charge. The spectator noise was deafening even at this unsociable hour of 2am, and soon I saw my lovely crowd; Giles, Liz, Lorna, Gavin, Damian, Louisa and Julie. The finish line was a confusing assault on the senses, which I crossed in 31.42, 189th overall, 20th female and 14th senior female.

I'll spare you the messy finish details but soon enough my old friend low blood pressure was back and I was dizzy, nauseus and completely out of it. I narrowly avoided sickness in the taxi home and found myself wiped down enough to crawl into bed. I'm eternally grateful to all those who were there for me: sent me words of encouragement before, during and after; were there through thick and thin in the race (Giles, Liz); pushed me around three punishing recce weekends (Jamie, Carrie); ran faster than me in the race and inspired me to follow; and peeled my sweaty clothes off in the men's toilet off a pub straight after the race, not taking no for an answer (Lorna!). Coach Ryan you have been a constant and responsive support through my training, helping me develop the tools to find another gear in this race, thank you. The reciprocal culture of the ultrarunning community is nothing short of special and forms bonds that are never forgotten.

More than once in the race I was reminded of a quote I have pinned to my office wall:

"The three great essentials for achieving something worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-it-iveness and common sense" (Thomas Edison)

Sometimes in life I feel I struggle with sticking to it but race experiences like this show me I can, in races and elsewhere. With a few days of perspective some of the things that helped me were:
  • Sticking to the pacing plan, and letting the hoards of men pass by early on
  • Letting myself be inspired not threatened by the formidable elite women around me
  • Knowing all discomfort will be temporary and knowing myself well enough to remember I love the feeling of pushing hard on tired legs at the end of a race; always try to get to this stage
  • All of the steep and ruthless sections of trail are followed at some stage by kinder sections where I can breathe and recover - the relief and reprieve will always come.
The full results are here.

The I Run Far results article is here.

A Scottish Athletics write-up is here.

Essential kit
The start
Fresh clothes and support at Champex Lac

Reaching Trient
Food choices at Trient
My only photo from the race, high above the Swiss valley en route to Trient

Chamonix from Flegere (taken pre-race)

 Congratulations fellow gilet-wearers :-)

 Some of our team, recovery hike to La Jonction

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...