Monday, March 27, 2023

Barkley Marathons 2023


‘I understand now why Barkley becomes an obsession; in fact, I suspect I’m already firmly in its grip’.

My words, one week after my unsuccessful attempt (‘Fun Run’ completion) at the 2022 Barkley Marathons. By the time I wrote those words, I knew I’d be back, and imagined myself doing so at the peak of fitness, ready to take on anything. In the end, my autumn training was dogged by fatigue which forced time to be redirected from training to sleep, as well as the flare-up of a chronic knee injury, an MRI of which prompted the orthopaedic specialist to comment, ‘If you want to carry on running, stick to soft surfaces and avoid anything undulating’. I didn’t tell him I’d just received a letter of condolences from Laz…

In the end, thanks to the support of my family and the patience of my coach (Damian Hall), I managed 6 weeks of solid training in the final run up to Barkley Marathons 2023, and I arrived in Frozen Head excited to see what I could do. This year there were familiar faces and happy reunions to balance out my nerves, as well as a fantastic weather forecast for the 3 days ahead. I was convinced the conch would be blown in the night, so I was surprised to wake up in daylight, having managed 7-8 hours of sleep. At 8:54 it sounded, and an hour later we were jogging en-masse away from the yellow gate, into the quiet forest beyond.

Pre-race chat. Credit: Howie Stern

Loop 1 (clockwise in daylight, 8 hours 36 minutes) passed surprisingly quickly. The running felt easier than the previous year, and it was fun to be with other runners for much of the loop. My dodgy knee made me cautious downhill, and I wasn’t surprised to lose sight of Damian and John early on. Rat Jaw had been mown, removing the challenge of the neck-high briars we’d encountered the previous year. From the prison to the end of the loop I ran alone, but I managed to follow a reasonable line and lost no time finding the books. I entered camp to find the group of Jared, Karel, and Joe still present, so I made a quick turnaround to get out with them for the nighttime loop.  

Credit: Howie Stern

Loop 2 (anticlockwise at night, 12 hours 38 minutes) felt harder, and certainly colder. I hung on at the back of the group, although I could tell Karel was struggling a little too (he later posted that he’d been suffering the after-effects of a stomach bug). Being with others was a real boost, nevertheless we moved more slowly than we had in daylight and made an error which cost us a little time. The final two climbs of the loop were rough, and I realized too late that I’d run out of energy, which resulted in me getting dropped as we started the climb from book two. I watched the headtorches pull away into the darkness above, as I slowly clawed my way upwards. A stupid error delayed me at book 1, and I arrived at camp shortly after Karel and Jared’s departure.

Loop 3 (anticlockwise in daylight, 14 hours 24 minutes). The headtorch I’d started with was soon unnecessary, and I climbed to Chimney Top in a sky blazing with pinks. I heard a cheerful shout behind me and turned to see Joe approaching, refreshed after his brief sleep. We collected our pages, and I wished him good luck as he pushed on, hoping to catch the two in front. Not long after, arriving at the next book, I was surprised to find his page still present, and I wondered fleetingly what adventure he might be having, before turning my attention back to my own. The climb to the fire-tower felt long and slow, and I was glad of the cheerful support waiting at the top. I surprised myself by navigating the next few books with ease, only to get lost on a section of straightforward trail further on. I was acutely aware of time ticking away, and I anxiously calculated splits on every summit, hoping to make it back in time to start loop 4. Between book 2 and book 1, I met Damian and John, then Karel and Jared, all of whom encouraged me with friendly words, in my quest to reach camp before the cut-off to start loop 4 (36 hours). 

Credit: Alexis Berg

Loop 4 (clockwise in nighttime and then daylight, approximately 16 hours 36 minutes). I took time at the loop 3 to 4 changeover to prepare myself for what I knew would be a difficult night, alone in the forests of Frozen Head. Having little more than 12 hours ahead of me to complete the loop, I knew the chances of getting back in time were low, but I was determined to get as far as I could. I ate pasta, Sonic potato tots (Damian and John’s leftovers I think!) and chocolate oat milk, and Konrad stuffed my pack with food I was still able to eat, including cold pizza, roasted salty potatoes, gels and sweets. I felt oddly elated heading away from the gate, knowing that I had already made it so far, largely under my own steam. I was rapidly reminded how fickle success is at Barkley, when I misjudged the start of the descent to book 2, ending up in a horrible mess of gulleys, crisscrossed with fallen trees and vine encased boulders. Unbeknown to me, in the time it took to correct my mistake, I’d been passed by Tomo, making me the last runner on loop 4. As the night wore on it became harder and harder to stay awake. The steep climbs were painfully slow, and the sight of leaves and tree trunks was more soothing than counting sheep could ever be. Trail with switchbacks was even worse, and I found myself waking up from microsleeps having missed a turn, debating which way to go. Reaching the ridge at Garden Spot it was suddenly bitterly cold, and I stopped to put on a padded jacket, just as I’d done the previous night. I knew I’d slowed down, and tried to force myself to pick up the pace, but it was so easy to lose focus, in the sleepy darkness. I was glad when the first light of morning came, as I reached the summit of Stallion Mountain, colouring the sky with the promise of a spectacular dawn. Much like the final evening on the Spine race in 2019, I think the dawn on loop 4 of Barkley 2023 will remain with me forever, it was that beautiful. The morning that followed was cold, bright, and clean. The fire-tower was quiet and peaceful as I passed by, as if Barkley was holding its breath in respect of the morning’s splendor. As I reached the bottom of the descent towards the prison my watch flicked over from 23:59 to 00:00 again, the 48 hours elapsed. I finished the loop by collecting the remaining pages (I wasn’t aware, or maybe just didn’t recall because of my sleep deprived state, that I should go straight back at this point. I don’t think it would have made a big difference anyway – and I’m glad I didn’t find myself debating it, since it would have been very hard to give up so close to the end of the loop). The last two climbs were accompanied by a bizarre mixture of old friends, family members, exotic animals and modern sculpture displays. I argued repeatedly with those around me that the climb couldn’t possibly be so long, and found myself amazed that the ground underneath my feet was the only thing matching what my eyes were telling me. The descent from Chimney Top was like a slow motion movie without sound, the forest still and warm from the midday sun, my shuffle through the leaves a distant noise on the outskirts of my consciousness. At the top of the last small rise, I saw a body lying across the path in front, but I knew that wouldn’t be real. Nevertheless it remained there as I got closer, until I was standing above it, at which point I realized it was Damian, asleep. I stood for a moment, then decided I should probably ask if he intended to be sleeping here. At which point he opened his eyes looking a bit confused, and asked me with concern ‘Are you ok?’, which struck me as somewhat ironic, coming from someone lying asleep across the path in a forest. We proceeded to discuss the location of the final book, which Damian had been unable to find in his tired state, and he explained to me that he’d brought back a leaf, and a small rock, to prove he’d been there. Although on second thoughts, he said, ‘that probably wouldn’t work would it?’, looking confused again. He continued to tell me that he’d also left two pieces of biscuit up there, for Laz to know he’d been there. The image of Laz wandering around Chimney Top searching for biscuit crumbs was amusing, but not out of place in my muddled thoughts, and I only pondered it briefly, before suggesting we return to camp together. It was a pleasure to cover those final moments of Barkley 2023 with a great friend, who did so well on his first attempt at the course.

When I reached the gate Laz looked at me enquiringly and asked whether I still thought I could do five loops. I looked at him and replied honestly that I thought I could. He smiled.

It was a great privilege and huge inspiration to witness Aurélien Sanchez, John Kelly and Karel Sabbe as they each finished the final loop of the Barkley Marathons and touched the yellow gate for the fifth time. I hope that one day I will do the same. Until then, I am grateful to have discovered a little more about myself, amongst the beautiful wilderness of Frozen Head.

My final thanks go to my family. To Konrad, for your support and for being my best friend. To my brother Vaclav, Agnese and Miranda, for welcoming us to New York and making the trip a true holiday. To my parents Alena and Jeff, for caring for the children whilst we were gone, and especially to my mum, who potty trained our youngest in the process! I bet there aren’t many Barkley competitors who have received inter-loopal potty training success updates!

Credit: Alexis Berg

Monday, August 29, 2022

UTMB 2022

It would be no lie to say I was quietly confident and openly hopeful coming into the UTMB this year. After a hiatus of 3 years without fast racing (I don’t count Barkley Marathons, because I think that is a completely different sort of challenge, and thus not comparable), with COVID and a second child in-between, I’d finally started to feel fit.

We’d spent the summer holiday visiting family and friends in Europe (we took the ferry, car, and dog), including 3 weeks in the Alps, a genuine training luxury for someone who works full-time alongside being mum to two small children. As a result, I arrived in Chamonix, after an 18-hour journey from Edinburgh by train and bus, excited but also relaxed in the knowledge that I’d done everything within my powers to prepare.

Training with friends this summer, credit Shane Ohly

In the end, the race didn’t go to plan. My hamstring started to hurt barely 10km into the race, which was both confusing and annoying, albeit still entirely sufferable. Much more worrying was my stomach, which felt off already before the race start, and had me dodging off into the bushes (I made use of those bags we got, but I think UTMB could have done with better signposted toilets at checkpoints too!) for half the night, and which ultimately prevented me eating anywhere near as much as I usually would. By Courmayeur my body seemed to have cleared itself out and I was starting to feel better, just empty. The subsequent climb felt slow and laboured, and I was overtaken by a few people on the easy section to Arnouvaz. I stayed a while to eat well there, including 2 lots of noodle soup, bread, cake, melon, and also a gel, but I think the damage had already been done. As I started the climb of Grand Col Ferret I ground to a halt, quite literally. Runners began streaming past, offering words of encouragement as they did so. A concerned pair of hikers kept catching me as I shuffled upwards, and even offered me some food of their own (I had lots, so declined with thanks).

My progress by then was so slow, and I felt so drained, that I debated returning to Arnouvaz, but the idea of going backwards was too sad. At some point, when I realized my race was over, I sat down and had a little cry, not only for all the training, the week spent away from the children, and all the people following me at home, but also because after 14 hours of pushing myself despite suffering, I suddenly remembered how mountains make me happy, and I hadn’t had the energy to even contemplate them until that moment.

In the end I made it to the Col, and walked from there to La Fouly, although I stopped several times for a sit down en-route. I planned to drop out there, but stopping is a hard thing to do, and ultimately, I carried on to Champex Lac, and then Trient, where I finally called it a day. Failing to finish a race isn’t really like me (only my second ever DNF I think, not counting Barkley), and I still feel oddly guilty for doing so, especially as so many people seem to believe in me. But I think there is strength too in knowing when to stop, and I hope that I can now turn the disappointment into a positive advantage in the next running challenge I face.  

I’m grateful and happy that my attempt to run UTMB in a climate conscious fashion received a share of the public and media attention this week, and I sincerely hope that it will be a catalyst for action in the running community and beyond, towards a fitter planet for all.

I’d like to finish with a big thank you, to my super coach Damian Hall, Renee McGregor for her very generous advice on nutrition, my friends The Green Runners, my Czech family (Eve, Jiri and Jana) who used their summer holiday to crew me (!), Renee Mand especially my family at home who make it all possible, I can’t wait for hugs when I get back tonight.

UTMB 2022, credit Sam Hill

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Barkley Marathons

I’m looking for a new challenge, an adventure that will push me to the limits of what I can endure, and beyond. I’m ready to feel small and insignificant in the wilderness, and I’m excited to find out what I can achieve, when I believe in the impossible. Thank you for considering my application.’

Extract from application essay, 2021.

I can’t recall when I first heard about the Barkley Marathons, but I do remember that at first, I wasn’t at all convinced. The event sounded contrived, the course repetitive, and the emphasis on suffering strange. A few years later, after running the 2019 Spine race, I was already changing my mind, but I knew I needed to be 100% committed to Barkley if I was going to do it justice. By summer 2021, that moment had arrived, and I was suddenly excited by the scale of the challenge. Not for fame or recognition, but for myself, because there is something strangely addictive about pushing oneself to the edge of what is possible.

Months later, I arrived in Frozen Head State Park for my virgin attempt at the Barkley Marathons. I’d spent the winter training specifically for this race, building up distance to weeks of 80+ miles with a maximum of 35,000 ft (10,700m) ascent. My training was all done in the early mornings, typically at 5am, and the longer weekend sessions sometimes started even earlier, as I was keen to spend as many daytime hours with the children as possible. January and February seemed to bring one storm after another here in the UK, which probably provided ideal Barkley training, in terms of mental resilience - it certainly took great resolve to leave bed and head for the hills with sleet whipping into my face, and wind knocking me sideways. To maximise ascent and steep gradient whilst remaining safe from the worst of the wind, I did many sessions of hill repeats, accumulating 18,000 ft (5,500m) ascent in 22 reps of Castlelaw (a local hill in the Pentlands) on one occasion. Our dog Moss clearly thought I was mad, and quickly learnt to hang back as we neared the top or bottom, sensing that we’d soon be heading back the same way. The rest of my family got involved with the training efforts too, my brother and mum both organized practice Barkley Marathon events for everyone, complete with undergrowth to test the hardiest of bushwhackers, and old magazines to collect pages from. (My brother Vaclav even went so far as choosing National Geographic titles such as ‘Journey to the South Pole’, and ‘Disasters.’)

I arrived at Barkley feeling that I’d done all I could (as a working mum of two small children, aged 4 years and 20 months respectively) to get physically fit, but the many unknowns ahead of me were intimidating; weather, terrain, navigation, and sleeplessness all being factors in what should, statistically speaking, almost certainly be eventual failure. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet Laz, and hand him my UK car registration plate (a requirement for all race virgins), as well as the huge wooden ladle my mum had carved out of cherry wood collected from the Longdendale valley where I grew up - Laz seemed pleased by this, pronouncing that it would be excellent for ice cream.

Laz hung out the flags, as is custom on either side of the track from the gate, starting with that of Ukraine, and we marked up maps according to the master copy and race instructions provided.   

A fortunate result of arriving from Scotland only the day before the race was that my body clock was still on UK time, and I managed to sleep despite the knowledge that we could be woken at any moment by the conch, signaling one hour to the race start. In the event, this happened shortly before 7am, at which point the camp came alive with last minute preparations. As we lined up by the yellow gate, a stranger approached me to say my run at the Spine had given his young daughter the confidence to keep playing football with the boys at primary school, which was a wonderful thing to contemplate at the start of that next big adventure.

Laz lit his cigarette, and everyone rushed forwards excitedly, relieved to be running after all the anticipation. For the first couple of books we moved as a group, and I was delighted to chat to the inspirational Courtney Dauwalter as we ran along dodging briars on a rare flatter section. I can’t think of a better place to have met.

The first descent was a rapid introduction to Barkley terrain (rocks, slides and undergrowth included), and I arrived at the bottom to find my compass had disintegrated somewhere along the way, leaving me with just a plastic rectangle for navigation. Thankfully I had a spare, which I guarded nervously from that point onwards.

Enjoying loop 1, credit Simon Franklin

The field started to spread out, and I settled into my own rhythm, deciding that this would be preferable to chasing the leaders. Luckily for me, I was joined by veteran and fun-run finisher Guillaume Calmettes, who gave me a guided tour for several hours that followed, kindly pointing out landmarks to look out for in the reverse direction as well. That period was genuinely enjoyable, with company, sunshine and fresh legs making easy work of the course. On the climb to the fire tower Guillame dropped back a little, and I briefly joined the group of Paul Giblin, Aaron Bradner and Tomas Oderud, before taking the lead. I navigated the last few books of the first loop alone with no issues, arriving back at the gate after 9 hours 13 minutes.

I rushed through a pan of pasta, changed into long trousers and top, and added a heavier waterproof jacket, spare gloves and waterproof over-gloves to the kit I was already carrying (which included waterproof trousers, hat, gloves, a spare thermal long-sleeved top and a fleece), aware that the forecast for the night was for heavy rain. Ten minutes later I collected a new number from Laz (corresponding to the pages I would need to collect from the books) and set off on loop 2 from the yellow gate, again in a clockwise direction.

Starting loop 2, credit Konrad Rawlik

The light started to fade as I started the first long descent, and I briefly joined Thomas Dunkerbeck to search for the second book, before he pulled away on the next ascent. As the darkness deepened, the rain set in. Hours passed, and the drumming grew louder, until water seemed to be everywhere, running from the trees, pooling in the hollows, turning the steep descents into a sliding quagmire. A fog drifted in, dazzling me in the reflected light of the headtorch, and forcing me to carry it in my hand, where it jostled for space with the map, compass and poles. The mud clogged the studs of my shoes, and I slid downwards through fallen leaves, snagging against briars and grabbing out to tree trunks for traction. At one stage, I looked up and saw two reflected eyes watching me from an outcrop above, watching my slow progress upwards.  

I reached the summit and located the book hidden there, noting how much harder that was at night. I ran a short way on along the mining bench and then stopped, studying the blackness ahead, and trying to recollect the route down along the ridge, searching my memory for the clues Guillame had pointed out earlier. I made one attempt, recognised it was wrong and climbed back up again. I stopped to put on layers, grateful for the addition of warm dry gloves and fleece, before descending once more. Arriving at the edge of a cliff, I took a guess and headed right, fighting my way through briars as I searched for a way down. Suddenly a light appeared coming in from the left below me, and I instinctively started shouting, ‘Hello there! Hello there!’, excited by the sign of human life. The light turned out to be Thomas again, and he was equally pleased to see me, having been on the wrong line too far left.

Working as a team, progress improved. On occasion, Thomas would take off his waterproof over-gloves and empty them of water, a sign of just how wet it was. The descent from the fire tower was like trying to stand on an inclined ice rink - in the end we just sat down and slid the steepest sections, untangling legs and arms from the cable and briars at speed whenever they got snagged. I remember thinking how impossible it was going to be coming up in the opposite direction on loop 3, if we made it back in time to tackle that.

By the time we’d reached the final ascent it was starting to get light, and I encouraged Thomas to push on, as he seemed to be climbing faster. Just below the summit the flashlight of Grieg Hamilton appeared (already on loop 3), approaching at pace. He stopped as he passed me, lifted the cap of his hood and asked, ‘Who’s that?’, before moving on with a quick smile as I gave my reply. I must have passed Karel Sabbe sometime earlier, whereas I met John Kelly as I started my descent to camp. He shouted something like, ‘Get back out for that fun run’, which suddenly seemed doable now that it was light and no longer raining. I forced myself to speed up, preparing in my mind a list of things I would need to do at the changeover, to be back out again by 24 hours.

I touched the yellow gate at 23:38:31, and after a hurried bowl of porridge accompanied by chocolate milk, a new running pole (the second replacement in fact, having also broken one on the first loop), dry gloves and re-stocked food provisions, I collected my next number from Laz at 23:52:24, thus starting loop 3, this time in the opposite (anti-clockwise) direction. Thomas set off just behind me but quickly moved ahead again, so I was left alone with my thoughts. I’d been told at the changeover that most of the field had dropped during the night, and I knew that I was now the fifth and final runner on the course. At that point I was still aiming to try and get back within 36 hours, the cut-off to start loop 4, although I suspected that it would be tight. Realistically, I thought 12-13 hours was more likely, providing I could navigate my way around without mishap…

Taking on water at the fire tower, credit Konrad Rawlik

The first few hours went well, and I arrived at the fire tower in good time and spirits, buoyed to see Konrad there in a supporting role (even though he couldn’t say/do anything, as per race rules). I think I muttered something aloud about the inappropriately named ‘Fun Run’, before checking a compass bearing and disappearing into the woods once more. The hours that followed were less straightforward, and I struggled to find the line on the climb where I’d met Thomas the night before. Whilst I’d done the loop twice already, the change of direction made the challenge surprisingly different. The time losses were small, but continuous, and I was aware that the 36-hour cut-off was slipping away from me. On the steep descent that followed I fell heavily, and then again, both times hitting my arms on stones as I did so. The second time I lay for a moment, waiting for the intensity of pain to pass, before concluding with relief that there was nothing broken. 

I made better progress on the flat section that followed, and I tried to use the opportunity to take on calories, nutrition having been neglected somewhat in the focus on navigation and terrain. I wasn’t enjoying food as much by this stage, but in contrast to other ultra-race experiences I had no problems getting it down, possibly because the pace at Barkley is relatively slow. I was keen to make the most of the remaining daylight and was pleased when I found myself with what I considered were all ‘straightforward’ books ahead of me as it grew dark. Alas, my confidence was ill-founded, and I made one navigational error after another. The 3 hours or so that I’d expected to have in reserve for a 40-hour ‘Fun Run’ rapidly diminished, and I was relieved when I finally reached the last summit, with an hour to make the descent. Once again however, I relaxed too soon. Somehow, despite theoretically running on a compass bearing, I gradually drifted off the ridge onto a diverging slope. At one point I saw a stream and made my way down to it, then changed my mind and inadvertently overcorrected, further exacerbating my misdirection. Eager to be home, I convinced myself that the stream I was following was the one I’d intended to arrive at, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t until I arrived at a waterfall and a large pool that the realization struck home, and with it a horrible sinking feeling inside. I checked my watch and for a moment I lost all hope, with half an hour remaining I surely couldn’t make it back in time. But then my resolve returned, and a huge wave of adrenaline kicked in. I was suddenly running back uphill and across, far faster than I’d moved since loop 1. I found myself encircled by mountain laurel bushes, and I raged at them, pushing against their strong arms and shouting out loud ‘Let me through, let me through!’, before recognizing the futility of my struggle and dropping onto my belly to slither forwards along the ground, desperately searching for an opening ahead.

Finally able to run again, I spotted lights to my side, but not the ones I needed. Breathing hard, I pushed over the next rise where I finally saw what I’d been hoping for. Continuing to the furthest point across, I re-joined the race route, and finally ran down the track to touch the yellow gate at 39:49:46. Counting my pages seemed to take forever, and there was a nervous silence as I scrabbled around amongst the sweet wrappers in my zip-lock bag for the final one, but finally I had it, and Laz was shaking my hand enthusiastically, whilst people congratulated me at either side. My heart was still pounding after the final sprint, and my legs suddenly felt drained and wobbly, as I struggled to process the fact that I was done.

Counting the pages, credit Simon Franklin

One week on, I’ve had time to be proud of myself and of what I achieved. I went to Barkley determined to give it my all, and I came away knowing I did. Whilst I made many mistakes, I also found the strength to overcome those disappointments, time and time again. I am already forgetting how hard my time ‘out there’ was, and in its place is a sense of nostalgia for the intensity of that effort, and the people I shared it with. I understand now why Barkley becomes an obsession; in fact I suspect I’m already firmly in its grip.

At this point I want to thank Laz and his team for creating and maintaining a challenge that is genuinely unique and wonderful. A huge thank you also to the fantastic Damian Hall for his coaching, as well as to Coach Dee for strength training, Shane Benzie for gait advice, inov-8 for kit and Supernatural Fuel for training food. Lastly, but most importantly, my husband Konrad for crewing and hugs, and my parents Alena and Jeff for looking after the children and dog at home whilst we were gone.

I’m overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the many congratulations messages I’ve received over the last week, and I hope that I can use a little of that attention for good, to inspire little girls playing football in primary school, amongst others.

On my windowsill, there lies the little Ukrainian flag, which we all pinned on at the start of the race. Incredibly and symbolically, it made it through the briars and through countless falls, surviving mud slides, river crossings, and that final dash through the mountain laurels.  

Friday, December 31, 2021

Ultra Tour Monte Rosa

We spent the family summer holiday in Switzerland this year, with the first week based in Grächen, and the second in St Luc, a village on the Sierre-Zinal race route. Apart from being a super family-friendly destination (car free, and playparks on every corner), Grächen also happens to be the start and finish point of the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), my target long race for 2021.

Feeling fresh, running from Grächen to Zermatt (photo © UTMR)

Thanks to COVID-19, the UTMR didn’t follow its usual course this year, and stayed in Switzerland throughout, avoiding the usual high glacier section crossing into Italy. Nevertheless, the course was still a real challenge, and felt more demanding than the only other 100-miler I’ve done, the UTMB. The route was more technical, and wilder, with more climb (reportedly 11,000m ascent, in 175 km) and more exposure. The UTMR is a much smaller race, which gives it a more intimate friendly feel, like a marked fell race on a grand scale. Even on the altered route, the scenery was fantastic, especially the views above Zermatt onto the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. 

We arrived in Grächen 5 days before the race, and I spent the first night sleeping up high. I hiked up to 2200m after putting the children to bed, bivvied there for the night, before an easy run at altitude and returning to the family in time for breakfast the next morning. Having Konrad and the children around before the race was the perfect antidote to pre-race nerves, helping me to keep things in perspective. Knowing they would be waiting for me was also the best possible incentive to get me back to the finish line once the race was underway!

On race day I woke up at 2:45am, breakfasted and dressed in silence, making it out of the house without waking the children, and arriving in the town centre comfortably for the 4am start. I felt great for the first 60km, and especially enjoyed the section from the start in Grächen to Zermatt, which includes the incredible Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge - the longest pedestrian footbridge in the Alps. Descending into Zermatt I caught up with Darcy Piceu – famous for her many finishes and wins at Hardrock 100 – and it was lovely to chat with her for a while as we climbed back out of the town, onto the massif above. The route circled around, taking in some incredible airy views of the 4000m peaks, before dropping back to Zermatt for an uncomfortable 20km of flat running down the hot valley to St Niklaus. It was a relief to arrive at the checkpoint there, and lovely to chat with Ruth Croft, who was volunteering on the event.

Running through Zermatt (photo Konrad Rawlik)

Climbing out of the valley, I started to suffer and feel sick, but thankfully that didn't last long. As dusk approached the route dropped me to its lowest point (700m) before starting the longest climb of the race, thankfully broken up by the Visperterminen checkpoint, 110km into the race. Tom Owens was volunteering there and did an amazing job sorting me out for the hours of darkness that lay ahead. I ran by myself for most of the night, although there were often head-torches on the mountain side ahead of me, drawing me on. I felt overwhelmingly sleepy, and debated a power nap on the path, but in the end, I just sang out loud to keep myself awake (there were some decent drop offs to the side of the path), embarrassingly this night-time concert featured mainly nursery rhymes – the Grand Old Duke of York, amongst others! The terrain was increasingly rocky, rather like the summit section of Scafell Pike. I was vaguely aware that I should be loving the technical rock hopping, but my legs were tired and kept tripping and tangling themselves up, so I just concentrated on putting one in front of the other.

Descending to the finish (photo Liz Bailey)

With dawn came new energy and the promise of the finish, and I tried to push on the final section from Saas Fee up to Grächen, although it was surprisingly technical, with a fair bit of scrambling and up-down in-outs of rock buttresses, which was hard on tired legs. I finished in 32 hours 26 minutes, in 9th overall, and was delighted to learn there that our friend Oli Johnson had smashed the overall race to win in 28 hours 23 minutes. 

Sharing soup at the finish (photo Konrad Rawlik)

UTMR is a race I would recommend without a moment’s hesitation. It has miles of stunning scenery and fantastic technical single-track paths, but what really makes the event is the volunteers at the checkpoints - it's like having your family waiting to care for you at every one. I am already looking forward to coming back and racing the full course. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

24h Munros

The challenge of the 24-hour Munro round is pleasingly simple; to climb as many Munros as possible within 24 hours, starting and finishing at the same place. With distance, ascent and terrain playing key roles, the round has fuelled discussion for decades in long distance running circles. Unsurprisingly, record attempts have focused on areas with the maximum concentration of Munros (Lochaber, Glen Shiel). In 1988 Jon Broxap ran a round of 28 Munros in the Glen Shiel area, which with the 1997 revision of the Munro tables got bumped up to 29, while at the same time Adrian Belton’s 28 Munro round in Lochaber got bumped down to 27. This record survived a couple of attempts by Spyke, standing until 2017, when legend has it that Jim Mann received a note in the post telling him to switch his focus to the Cairngorms, where he duly clocked 30 Munros in 22:05. That route was extended by Sasha Chepelin in 2020 to 32 Munros in 23:10, and again by Kim Collinson in 2021, to 33 Munros in 23:48.

(photo Graham Nash)

Against the flurry of these male records, the absence of a female 24-hour Munro round was striking. Konrad and I speculated that I might already hold it by default – for my Ramsay round (23 Munros), in 16:13, although one could argue that Helene Diamantides' Ramsay round included 24 Munros at the time it was set (the loss of Sgor an Iubhair that affected Adrian’s round also affecting the Ramsay)! Either way, it was clear that a serious effort for a female 24-hour Munro record was well overdue.

I scheduled a date for 24th July (the one week in a block of 6 during July/August that I wasn’t going to be on clinics at work and could therefore guarantee some decent sleep in the lead-up) and crossed my fingers that the weather would be kind. It was almost too good, the ground was bone-dry, and the visibility was incredible, but it was uncomfortably hot for long-distance running (Finlay Wild ran a record-breaking solo Rigby Round the same day in 16h40, and drank 16 litres of water in the process!).

It was hard to know how many Munros to aim for, since I wasn’t sure just how much long-distance fitness I’d regained since having my son Bryn (born in July 2020). With Konrad’s help, I settled on an anti-clockwise attempt, based on Jim Mann’s round, with a variety of finishing options, aiming to do anywhere from 29 – 32 Munros, or less, if time was running out.

With two small children to factor into the planning, I opted to run from midnight to midnight, which meant that Konrad could drive me up to our starting point at Invercauld Bridge (after we’d had dinner with the family and prepared the children for bed), and pace me on the first leg, before driving back to take over from my wonderful mum at home.

Leg 1 - Invercauld Bridge to Glenshee (Konrad Rawlik, Jim Mann, and Moss our border collie dog): The first leg was incredible; easy grassy running by the light of a huge full moon, with a sea of cloud inversion below us, and herds of deer streaming past in the half light. We made fast work of the Lochnagar Munros and crossed to the Glenshee group for a stunning sunrise of pink and orange, finishing the leg just one minute short of Jim’s split, in 5h38.

(photo Konrad Rawlik)

Leg 2 - Glenshee to White Bridge (Sasha Chepelin and Ally Beaven): The heat was kicking in, but I still felt reasonably good, and we made steady progress over the remaining Glenshee group and other Munro’s towards White Bridge. I stopped to lie in every stream we passed and was glad I’d remembered Vaseline to prevent chaffing – the bits I’d missed soon reminded themselves to me! The time passed quickly, chatting to Sasha about his own round, and Ally about his experiences at Barkley Marathons, and we descended to White Bridge a few minutes up on my schedule of 6h10.

(photo Sasha Chepelin)

Leg 3 - White Bridge to Corrour Bothy (Eoin Lennon and Ali Masson): It wasn’t feeling so easy anymore, and the ascent of Beinn Bhrotain was the first split I lost time on my schedule. Coming off the summit, my toe caught a boulder, and I sand-papered the skin off my knees and elbows, knocking my confidence temporarily. Nevertheless, I relished the fantastic views over the next summits lining the west side of the Lairig Ghru , especially as I’d seen so little of them on my recent clagged-out Rigby round. At the changeover point I lay spreadeagled in the river, preparing myself for the challenges I knew the coming hours would bring. At this stage I had ticked 24 Munros, and was going beyond the Ramsay total.

(photo John Ryan)

Leg 4 - Corrour Bothy to Invercauld Bridge (Graham Nash, John Ryan, Eoin Lennon): The steep gulley climb up to Carn a’Mhaim felt just as hard as it had on my Rigby round, and the subsequent pull up to Ben Macdui took just as long. At least we didn’t get lost on the traverse to Derry Cairngorm this time, although we were now losing time steadily on the schedule. Whilst I was still trying to run the flatter sections, it was clear how feeble my efforts must be, as my supporters were walking along chatting beside me. Graham guided the scramble up the summit tor on Beinn Mheadhoin, before the horrible rough descent of heather, rocks and holes, down its eastern flank. This was the point at which I needed to decide how I would finish the round, based on the time I had remaining of the day. By now it was clear that I needed to be getting back, but we opted to include Beinn Bhreac on the way, hoping that the improved descent line John had in mind would have us back on the final 14 km of flat tracks in good enough time. The line was indeed much better, but my slow progress by this stage, combined with rough and trackless ground, left things tighter than any of us would have liked by the time we reached the valley. John and Graham thrust a banana and a bar into my hands, ordered me to eat, and then set off running, telling me I needed to keep up. I dug deep, focusing on their backs in front of me, and the rhythm of my stride, thankful that we were on a track at least. At Linn of Quoich, Graham peeled off for the car, whilst John and I continued along the darkening valley, towards the lights of Braemar twinkling teasingly in the distance. We were making steady progress, and it seemed that we would reach Invercauld Bridge comfortably before midnight, but then we took a wrong turn, and ended up in a field waist deep in grass, with John telling me to ‘Turn right’, and me finding myself face to face with a 2m high deer fence and no way through. ‘Back here, over this fence!’, went the cry, and I grabbed the twine to lift my leg over before an electric shock sent me flying backwards in surprise. ‘Cross the gully!’, ‘But there’s a river there!’, ‘It’s not a river, it’s a stream!’ went our exclamations, before we finally hauled ourselves back onto a track, still trying to work out which way to run next. With precious minutes ticking by to midnight, the record seemed to hang agonisingly in the balance, but at exactly that moment the lights of two torches appeared from above, and with them the very welcome figures of Sasha and Ali. We raced along with them leading the way – I’d never have believed I could still run like that if I hadn’t needed to – passing through a field of sleeping cows, and finally reaching my starting point at 23:48 (although by the time I’d worked out how to stop my new watch it was 23:49:02, so that’s the official time).

(photo Graham Nash)

It was an exciting and memorable end to an incredible day, which I was fortunate to spend in the best of company – talented runners all, and equally great friends. I was delighted to have given it everything, and to have persevered when it started to hurt and doubts were creeping in. I’m pleased there is now an official ladies 24-hour Munro round, and I have no doubt that the figure of 29 will only be temporary, as others take on the challenge for themselves.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Rigby Round

Described by some as the ‘connoisseur’s round’, the Rigby Round is a circuit of 18 Munros in the vast and tundra-like wilderness of the Cairngorm mountain range. The route was first completed in 1988 by Mark Rigby solo-unsupported in 22 hours and 44 minutes, including 2 hours spent sheltering in bothies from terrible weather. The spirit of that inaugural round inspired subsequent attempts in the same minimalist style, and it is now suggested that the route is completed solo and unsupported, ideally with no prior reconnoitre.

At 3am on Saturday 19th June, I touched the Norwegian Stone outside Glenmore Lodge, and set off anticlockwise around the loch. My last big challenge had been the PTL race in 2019. With a baby and a pandemic between then and now, this was to be my first big run for almost 2 years, and I was excited by the adventure it promised.  
I made good progress on the run out to Braeriach, and felt strong on the climb, buoyed by the brilliant pink sky of dawn. As I reached the summit the cloud came in, and visibility dropped to a few metres. Given the excellent forecast, including “80% chance of cloud free Munros”, I was hopeful that the mist would burn off as the morning progressed. I pulled out my compass and continued into the murk of the summit plateau. The cloud lifted for my next Munro, Sgor Gaoith, but settled back in for the steady run across to the gentle top of Mullach Clach a'Bhlair. 

I ticked off Beinn Bhrotain, came back over Monadh Mor and then dropped down before re-ascending to the ridge of Sgurr an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, and Devil’s Point. I enjoyed the technical challenge of the rocky path, but the mist removed all sense of space, and felt oddly claustrophobic. I was glad to drop out of the cloud on my descent to Corrour, although the steep ascent awaiting me to Carn a'Mhaim loomed large, and I squinted to make out the best line up through the crags above. 

At this point I was running roughly to the splits of Sam Alexander, who’d finished in 19:36. However, as I started to climb again, it began to rain. I dragged and slithered my way up the waterlogged gulley and my mood fell as I re-entered the mist and my field of vision closed in. With my hopes of a fast finish fading, I started to question my ability to complete at all. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this stuff anymore? What was I doing up here in this isolating fog, when my children were in the valley below? I reached the summit of Ben Macdui, passing several hunched shadows of figures on the summit expanse. With cold fingers I took a bearing for the descent, failing to find the obvious path that should have been there. I stopped to put on a warm mid-layer, hat and gloves, then muddled my way through to the climb for Derry Cairngorm. By Beinn Mheadhoin I’d warmed up, and things were seeming more optimistic, although I was aware that I’d lost a chunk of time in the preceding hour. 

A representative view from the day. 

The cloud cleared as I descended between heather and boulders into the valley, and for the next 90 minutes I delighted in my ability to see the landscape. Beinn Bhreac was a long plod over marshy ground to pick up a track, before retracing my steps towards the ascent of Beinn a’Bhuird. To my disappointment the cloud swirled in again then, and I spent several minutes on the plateau searching for the summit cairn, which I knew must be only metres away. I pushed on towards Ben Avon, once again on a bearing, and now heading into wind and rain. With evening approaching, I wondered whether what I was doing was sensible, feeling far removed from any hint of civilisation in the hostile weather and dim light. 

Turning towards home was a boost for morale, although my pace had dropped, and progress over the tussocky peat hags seemed grindingly slow. Thankfully, my fastest option for getting back was now to complete the round, so I plodded on. I summited Ben a’Chorainn, descended to the Fords of Avon, and climbed Bynack More, hearing my phone bedtime reminder tune (one can but try!) as I neared the summit at 10pm. I kept my eyes glued to the compass bearing on the descent, promising myself hot tea and dry socks in a couple of hours’ time. As I neared the valley, the sound of the river rose to meet me and I paused to assess the view that was emerging from the mist. My tired brain struggled to match the landmarks below to my supposed position, and I turned the map around a couple of times to try and make things fit. Why was there a big expanse of water over in the valley to the right? And where was the loch I was supposed to be above? With a sinking feeling, I realised that I must have descended the wrong spur, and was now almost back at the Fords of Avon.  

The light was nearly gone, and I fell thigh-deep into a bog as I tried to contour across, vainly trying to save height. I gave up, put on a head torch and dropped to the river, where I began my gradual climb to the saddle and thereon to Caingorm. The night was dark for mid-summer, and the patches of snow stood out eerily in the foggy light of my headlamp, as I climbed straight up alongside the sound of the swollen stream.  

At the summit I sat for a minute leaning against the weather station, then filled my mouth with sweets and started the long descent, knees angrily chiming in protest. As I stumbled into holes, rocks and heather, I cursed my decision to follow the ski lift down from the restaurant – there might be a good line in daylight, but I certainly couldn’t see one now.  I was relieved to finally reach the road, and its promise of an end. 

After 22 hours and 19 minutes of running (72.5 miles, 21,142 ft ascent), I finally touched the Norwegian Stone for the second time. It had been the longest time I’d been away from Bryn since he was born, the longest solo run I’d ever done (even on the Spine, I came to checkpoints at 50-mile intervals), and certainly the longest time I’d ever spent running on a compass bearing! I’d made plenty of mistakes, and I hadn’t been fast, but I was proud of myself for persevering. I slowly got up, and hobbled down the road towards the warm light of the van, where at least one person was still awake to greet me. 

Tired but happy to be done.

Postscript: Little did I know that some 24 hours before me, Viv Scott (an Edinburgh friend) and Oli Johnson (a Dark Peak friend) had individually set off from the Norwegian Stone on their own Rigby Round attempts. Making use of good conditions that day both had completed, with Oli finishing in an incredible new record time of 17 hours 13 minutes. Simply astonishing!  

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Bump and Baby, Second Time Around

Fuelled by months of lockdown and no racing, the summer of 2020 saw UK long distance hill running records toppling at a staggering rate. Decades-old records were broken not once, but twice in a season, the classic rounds all changed hands, and new ones emerged. 

Meanwhile, I was delighted to walk the Pentland Skyline route (26.6km, 1890m ascent, course record Angela Mudge 2:42:29) in a little over 7 hours. It was you see, the first hill day I’d had in months, and I was doing it in the company of my 4-week-old baby son, Bryn. We had a couple of breastfeeding stops on the way in the heather, and I celebrated at the finish with lemonade, tea and ice cream. It was good to feel tired again from physical exercise, rather than the absolute exhaustion which I’d experienced at times during this second pregnancy. 

During my first pregnancy I enjoyed running, and even occasional racing, right up to the day our daughter Rowan was born. In contrast, and contrary to my expectations, being pregnant felt much harder second time around. For the first 4 months I was permanently exhausted, as if I might fall asleep on my feet at any moment. I tried to keep up some form of daily run before work - partly because it helped to ease the constant nausea - but it was rarely more than 3 miles along the flat, and even that tended to involve some walking. It was during this period that I ran the only two races of this pregnancy, although in the abominable weather (Trigger) and general chaos (Devil’s Burdens Relays), my slowness didn’t really stand out. At 5 months my energy returned, but within a month I’d started to experience Braxton Hicks contractions (practice contractions for labour, it turns out that with second pregnancies they can start months in advance) whenever I went for a run. I purchased a support band for my belly, thinking that maybe less bounce would mean fewer Braxton Hicks, and it did help for a couple of weeks, but then I started to experience pelvic girdle pain. In the end, the only exercise I found myself able to do (bearing in mind that coronavirus restrictions were in full force, and so gyms and pools were shut) was running reps up the slope of the reservoir dam beside our house. For some reason, the angle made running pain-free, and it felt good to raise my heart rate a little, in the 12m of ascent each rep provided. Each day I’d aim to do a session of 20 reps, for which I always had the company of our dog Moss, sometimes even Rowan. At 36 weeks even this activity became uncomfortable, and I switched to short swims in the reservoir (by this stage in the season the water had warmed up sufficiently, since I obviously couldn’t fit in a wetsuit anymore), enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. 

Bryn was born at 41 weeks, after a drawn-out early labour of 2 days (who said second babies come faster than first babies?!). Coincidentally, Sabrina Verjee was making her way around the Wainwrights at the time, so there was a tracker to follow at all hours of the day and night, which proved to be a welcome distraction. Thankfully Bryn’s birth was without complications, and we returned home later the same day to start life as a family of four. 

I waited until almost 6 weeks postnatally to attempt any running after Bryn was born, which is how long it took for my pelvic girdle pain to settle down. In the meantime, I followed advice from the postnatal physiotherapist I had visited after Rowan was born and worked on my pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. (I subsequently visited her again, for my ‘mummy MOT’ after Bryn; I really recommend a check like this for any mum getting back into training after childbirth.) When I did start running again, it was very gradual, just short jogs interspersed with walking, letting my body guide things. At first, it felt strangely stiff and unnatural, but within a couple of weeks things had loosened up and running became more enjoyable again. At 3 months post-partum I felt ready for some more structured training, and thankfully Damian seemed pleased to coach me again. There have been a few hiccups along the way (including frustrating metatarsal pain that took a month to fully clear up), but Bryn is now almost 7 months old, and I’m beginning to feel my previous fitness and stamina creeping back. I’ve also started doing three-times-weekly live strength sessions with Strength for Endurance, which provide great motivation (especially for someone like me, who finds strength work much more appealing in company) and are great fun. Sometimes Rowan joins in, offering to ‘help’ by clasping my head on her lap during hamstring raises, or sitting on my back as I do push ups, whilst Bryn happily chews on a resistance band in the corner… 

I hope that this blog doesn’t read as a series of pregnancy complaints, it wasn’t meant to. Rather I wanted to give an honest description of the second experience, just as I did about the the action-packed first. Having children has made me incredibly happy, and I am grateful every day for my family, knowing how lucky I am. As for running, I am determined to make time for it, even in the chaos that two little ones bring (at the moment, getting out of the house is my biggest challenge running wise!). Not necessarily because I need to remain competitive, but because it makes me happy. It is my bit of daily self-care, and ultimately makes me a better mum. 

Looking ahead, it is hard to know what this year will bring. I am hoping to run the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa in September, and Konrad has an entry for the Tor des Geants the following week, which will make for an active family holiday. If races don’t go ahead, I expect we’ll see another record-breaking season on the UK long distance hill running circuit. In that case, I hope to have more ambitious targets than the Pentland Skyline this time around…