Friday 17 July 2015

Al Andalus Ultimate Trail race 230km - 5 days

After having such a fantastic experience in 2014 I simply had to come back for another run. My only reservation was that I had the Dragon's Back race with only a week between. (300+km with 16000m ascent across the mountains of Wales) After umming and ahhh-ing and thinking it over for about... 5 seconds, I'd made up my mind and there I was on the start list.

The organisation and logistics of the race are fantastic! If you'd like to read more about how the race works then you can jump on the blog I did last year HERE. In summary it's 5 days with days 1, 3 and 5 being 38/39km, day 2 48km and day 4 at 67km. The terrain is a mix of good trail, like dirt roads and some single track and trails through the woods. The area around Alhama de Granada isn't known for being flat but there is nothing resembling rock climbing or the likes! The route markings are incredible and support staff are amazing too. Another thing to mention this is Spain and also summer... this year we experienced the local towns record temperature of 42C (in the shade) A thermometer in the sun near the finish line was showing 53C!

IF YOU JUST WANT TO READ ABOUT THE RACE AND DON'T CARE ABOUT KIT DETAILS ... skip down a little bit to the next image :)

In terms of kit, I should have reread my notes from last year as this would have saved me packing some things. Here's what I took and in ***s are things I would NOT TAKE next time

CAMP stuff

Snugpak sleeping bag (comfort rating 7degrees) never needed to zip it up ***would just take a liner
Thermarest - would be pretty uncomfortable without one!
Inflatable pillow *** could just use backpack for pillow but takes up little space
Towel - Microfibre one - just dried myself in the sun after showering and swimming though
Tooth brush + paste + suncream + aftersun
 Shoes for around camp - some road trainers incase I fancied wearing them *** would take flip flops or smaller shoes
 Shorts, long sleeve Vest and Berghaus jacket for at camp. never used the jacket but had long sleeve on to save being bitten by bugs once or twice

RUN stuff

Blister plasters, adhesive tape - basic first aid things, never had to use any of it.
Elete electrolyte 
Vaseline - Small tin ... Stops things rubbing, worth carrying though I never used it
1 pairs of injinji socks (washed all kit after running so wore exactly same kit each day)
1 pair of run shorts
1 9bar team vest
1 hat about £1 from Teneriefe a couple of weeks ago... broke on day one but pinned it together... you get what you pay for!
1 pair of Berghaus vapour claw Trail shoes - perfect
Salomon Xt wings belt - bottle holder belt with an extra couple of pockets for first aid and camera.
2 x 600ml bottles, usually only had 1 to drink between CP's but used the other for tipping water on myself on longer days - worth considering how long you'll be between cps some people who were slower runners were going through all the water before the cps...
Camera phone for piccies on route also has inbuilt torch for around camp at night
Garmin 310xt gps watch, record the data and keep an eye on things if you want to
Sunglasses - The usual Oakley's

Food wise I took....
3 x Dehydrated meals, the Decathlon ones which were nice enough. Day 1 finishes literally at a bar so I bought food there. Day 5 finishes in town so went to the supermarket. The other days I had this about 3 hours after finishing.
8 x Breakfast 9bars (2 each morning although on Wednesday and Friday I only ate 1)
4 x recovery shake... .Had this soon after finishing 
3 x SIS Go carbohydrate sachets ... handy to carry and mix into water if needed. Used 2 of them during the week one on day 2 and one on day 4
4 x protein recovery bars. had between meals or before bed.

Not really much that I could cut out that I packed. I didn't use the first aid stuff but I wouldn't run without it. If you get something causing a blister  during a stage and don't stop to tape it, a couple hours can soon make your race uncomfortable. Didn't have a mark on my feet at the end. Sleeping bag was too hot to sleep in again. The waist pack was fine for the running, most people had race vests but if I can get away with a small waist pack instead I will. Most people had much more stuff than that (or at least much bigger bags) 
I personally think the less stuff you have to mess with the more simple it is. 

Less decisions = less stress perhaps? Also less stuff is less to organise. I've done a lot of races and multi day runs now and have a pretty good idea what I will use and need. If you're doing your first one you might end up taking a bit of extra stuff. 

Anyway on to day 1!

Day 1
I had run about 50 miles the week after Dragons Back and a bit of cycling and climbing. The legs were feeling ok though I hadn't done anything hard or intense with them so opted for a gentle start on day 1. It felt hotter than the previous year and I remembered feeling a bit hot towards the back end of the first day in 2014. From the start there were 2 guys in the lead and pushing a good pace towards the first hill and the climb up to cp 1 at 11km. Mauri a local runner and Carlos from Brazil. Then myself and a group of 4 or 5 runners a little bit behind. As the climb started to kick in I pulled away from the group aside from Belgian Jochan who passed me and we caught up with Carlos moving into 2nd and 3rd as we climbed toward the first cp. I actually felt like I wasn't working as hard as last year but hit the cp within 60 seconds of my time last year.

The next 10km is generally down hill with a few little climbs here and there and I moved on at a comfortable pace slowly gaining on 2nd. Aside from my hat breaking and trying to tie it together pretty it was all fine and I was happy with the legs as the temperature started to climb. A quick refill cp 2 then off along the undulating road to cp3. I was feeling the heat a lot now and didn't really have any shade or a hat which seemed to make a big difference as I didn't feel quite as hot on the other days. I was glad to refill my water and get a cup of coke at the 3rd cp then it was home straight back to Alhama de Granada where I held a coaching holiday in February so I knew exactly how far it was to the finish. I felt like I was getting cooked and dropped the pace over the last section to arrive in 3rd, very warm but feeling physically great and made the most of the pool and nice food available throughout the afternoon and evening.

My post race routine was basically to get hydrated as soon as possible**
I'd have fluids with some elete water post race for the first 30 mins or so. Whilst I was cooling down. Then a recovery shake and milk where possible.
I'd continue nibbling on watermelon and sipping away at water before having a feed about 90 mins post run and again about 90 mins after that. Basically when I wasn't running I was drinking water, eating and lying in the shade or splashing about in the pool. Generally I was going to bed around midnight when the temps had cooled (hardly) and waking up 30 - 60 mins before the start time... Yes you might say cutting it fine but I was on my holiday and wanted a relaxed week of running :)

**I used no electrolytes on day 1 just to see what would happen and whether they were making a difference. It took me until almost 6 hours after the race to get properly hydrated again. The other days I continued to use Elete water after running in a couple of my drinks until I was hydrated which was generally 2 or 3 hours. In the race I was averaging 800ml per 10km of running and probably drinking about 8 - 10l per day of fluids maybe a bit more

Day 2 
I woke up feeling fresh and ready, basically I would guzzle down about 500ml of water then my 9 bars, clothes on, bag packed, quick mobility routine and on the start line.
For day 2 I was feeling good knowing the legs were ok and that the Dragons Back Race hadn't done any damage. I love the gorge at Alhama de Granada and the route sets off straight though there and out onto some undulating tracks before hitting cp 2 and the start of the single tracks (those on the coaching weeks with me will know what I'm talking about! Awesome trail through there!!) Me and Mauricio the leader were running together for most of this day and we moved through the trails together seeing deer and wild pigs. Just before 40km I found a stream and got myself in there to float around for a few minutes and cool down. 

Mauricio continued on ahead and maintained a lead somewhere around 10 mins I think from memory. The last few miles felt quite comfortable also as we climbed into Jatar and into the camp with the cold stream!! Despite me spending time floating about in 3 or 4 different streams and a trough I still ran quicker than last year. For the evening meal we walked about 500m into town where a local bar had prepared our food. I had plenty and polished off a good amount of leftovers too (thanks guys!) not sure if they were trying to weigh me down or help me out but thanks!!

Day 3
Although the middle day of the week is one of the short ones and relatively quick going it doesn't really feel like half way though when you speak to most runners... For most the main concern is the 'long day' Day 4 which is just over 40 miles 67km. If you can get through the first 3 days feeling reasonable then you can have a good long day and just give whatever you have got left for the final day. I set out at a decent pace but not quite as quick as last year whilst a group of runners set off for a fast start, I left them to it. Generally when I run I ignore any other runners pace and unless it's going to make a difference to the final positioning in the final miles I wouldn't usually alter my pace. As tempting as it was to tear off down the road with them I sat on my comfy pace around 4 mins per km (just under 7min mile pace)

After the initial undulations the route really starts to ascend about 13 km. A pretty good climb over the next 10km passing checkpoint 2 near the top. This section is almost on a plateau and you can maintain a decent pace. I was really feeling the heat again in the sun as there was very little water on the route to cool off with (no streams) but it wasn't long until I reached the 3rd cp and was ready to start descending down towards the finish. The white dirt tracks reflected the heat but descending gave enough breeze to take the edge off through the odd shaded patches. I had a quick dip in a little trough of water not far from the finish then it was into camp and time to relax before the paella dinner! 

There were a few people feeling a bit uneasy about the 'long' day

Day 4

The fourth day is 40 miles and is made up of some undulating single track over the first 10km, a fantastic lakeside trail over the next 10km before hitting a couple of good climbs through the hills and small towns on the way to the 50km checkpoint. From there it's a little bit of undulating on an exposed track before the final cp and descent down into the finish just outside the Alhama Gorge.
I literally rolled on to the start line filling my water bottle up as the countdown struck 0, there had been an earlier start group (30mins before) and I woke up hearing their countdown. A group of 3 set off at the front with a small gap to me and then quite a large gap to the rest of the field as we twisted around the hills, we spread out more and more and it wasn't long before I could see nobody infront or behind. Just before cp1 I began passing runners from the earlier start group and before I knew it I was heading along the lake. Pretty shaded and good trail though I didn't feel like I was moving that fast I was running well and seemed to get stronger and stronger as the day went on.

After the 2nd checkpoint on the dam there is a decent climb and a few undulations on the way to the 3rd cp. Progress was good and I remembered the next section down into the 40km checkpoint being quite good running. I was getting pretty warm by now and made some good pace and must have been fairly close to my time from last year. There is a river crossing at 43km which I didn't take advantage of... this year I lay there and drifted about for a few moments... It felt great and over the next climb I felt pretty fresh and reached the cp comfortably. Topped up the bottles and headed off for the final cp having done most of the ascent and ready to enjoy the downhill (ish) finish. This section for me last year was probably the hardest of the whole event as I got caught in the heat and guzzled through my water in no time. This year it wasn't quite so bad and there was an intermediate water point along with Graeme and Orla out on route. Soon enough I hit the final cp and descended well on the good tracks to the finish (there's a little bit of a hill sneaked in at the end there which caught me out last year) I arrived in not too far off last years time which I was happy with! There was time to chill out in the shade for a bit before heading to the local pool and restaurant (about 1km away) where we all caught up and relaxed before dinner before our final day! 

Day 5
It was a little sad that today would be our last day of the race. I was enjoying the trails and the sunshine but most importantly the atmosphere and being part of such an enthusiastic group that were all keen and motivated (well mostly, even if there were a few sets of achy legs ;) ) to get it done! The route for day 5 is fairly good going with a couple of climbs, though nothing too epic. The gap between myself and the front two runners and the 4th runner on the overall standings meant that in reality positions were unlikely to change unless there was some sort of incident. I took my time on the last day and ran a slightly more relaxed pace and tried to chat to all the earlier runners that I passed by. Everyone seemed in good spirits and the guys at the checkpoints were as always, super supportive! 

After reaching the final cp it's majority downhill and I managed to pass the final couple of guys who'd taken the earlier start times and rolled over the finish line in 3rd overall a total time of 21  hours 21 mins for the 230km. What a week! 

Although about an hour slower than last year overall (most of that on day 1) I had a fantastic run! I had a slightly more relaxed approach than last year as I was expecting to have felt some effects of the Dragon's Back still. I don't usually like to go back to the long races for a second time but this is definitely a race I'd make an exception for! Whether you really want to push yourself to the limit and run it as fast as you can or whether simply dragging yourself over the finish line would be a dream for you this race is definitely worth a look! You'll be well looked after and gain an experience of a lifetime! There's a strong possibility I'll be back next year! I like the area so much I held a trail run coaching holiday there in February! If you'd like to get some more details on the next one just jump on my coaching site 

Huge thanks to everyone involved with organising the event and looking after us for the week! Also a big well done to everyone who signed up and took part! I know there were some amazing shows of determination and strength through the field! Same time next year?

Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Berghaus Dragon's Back Race part 2

If you haven't already, you can see part 1 of the blog where I explain a bit more about how the race works and what sort of kit I used. This is pretty much just my account day by day if I can remember everything in order ;) I've used a few pics from other times to show the course and some that I took en route.


After a night in Conwy we walked into the castle around 6.30am on Monday morning ready to start. There was a choir singing as we were handed out the days maps... After glancing at the map I knew the way pretty much off by heart after the first couple of hills to get out of the town and into the mountains. I kept the map out most of the day although rarely had to look at it even in the cloudy conditions we experienced during the first morning. It was essentially a large chunk of the welsh 3000s to get us up and over the Carneddau range after a big snaking trail of runners over the first few miles and I was moving confidently in the cloud having run across there in all kinds of conditions.

The days running was about 53km with 3800m of ascent and I never really ended up running with anyone for more than a few minutes at a time. I moved ahead of a guy following me and passed another as we descended down into the Ogwen valley and the days support checkpoint where I only briefly stopped to top up my water although I didn't actually need anything else so just kept on going up Tryfan. It's a good rocky climb and it was a bit wet on the whole making it slower going scrambling about in the rocks. Next I scurried along down the tricky  descent! It was easy to pick up a few scrapes moving through the terrain before ascending on to the Glyders. It was almost a spot of rock climbing to reach the summit of Glyder Fach and swipe the electronic box with my timing chip before trotting across to Glyder Fawr still in the mist. THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE IN POOR VISIBILITY, We just had a bit of cloud so no dramas ;)

I got straight onto the vague path down to Pen Y Pass Yha where I've stayed plenty of times. I was moving well and it was easy finding the path compared to a day in January where I was in a total whiteout and couldn't tell the floor from the sky. From the YHA it was straight up the Pyg track until the turn for Crib Goch which is probably not what you would call trail running. It's a stiff ascent up onto the ridge which is a bit narrow in places but I've been up quite a few times and the weather was fairly pleasant by now. VIDEO HERE

After Crib Goch you follow the ridge which is fairly straight forwards and eventually around and on to Snowdon where there were a couple of marshals out to meet us. We followed what forms part of the horseshoe around towards west peak and along to a far control point before taking a grassy descent to a track which I've run down in the past winding its way down to the day one finish just to the south of Nant Gwynant.

Day 1 was fun although I probably paced myself a bit too much although I was happy to arrive at the end feeling like I'd just had a nice easy day out... Interesting! The camp was amazingly efficient and the tents were great! Very spacious with loads of room to spread out kit and stretch out. I landed in 9th position and pretty much got straight into my post race routine so that I'd be well fueled, hydrated and ready to go the next day. There were people finishing late into the evening and already people showing signs of wear and damage during even the first day! 

DAY 2 
I woke up at 6am ready for a 7am start. I knew the first hill Cnicht, and that was cloudy last time I was up there, that's all. I woke up with a dull ache in my knee which was a bit strange, I woke up and I'd been lying slightly off my Thermarest overnight so knee was pressing into the floor other than that I was feeling great and looking forwards to some sunshine! 

I was loving the Moelwyns and enjoying finding my way around some new hills that I'd never been up! The scenery was pretty stunning and I began to catch people from the earlier start times quite quickly. On the map there was a large gap after cp 4 and it left a few totally different options for route choice, I was tempted by a longer route that skirted around on the road but chose to take the more direct line just a bit more difficult to nav and worse terrain which was pretty boggy in places. I was looking forwards to getting back into the Rhinogs which were pretty rocky and had some good steep gradients to play on! 

The terrain was stunning in the mountain sections, sun was out what more could you want from a summer holiday? I chose some lines which looked awesome although I doubt they'd be the quickest or shortest I was loving it! Would definitely like to go running around there again. The final few cps came about quite quickly and before I knew it I was heading down to pick up a forest trail to the finish line. The line I was following on the ground was fantastic as I descended from the final hill only for it to vanish into some tussocky bouldery terrain which was just terrible to move across. I hit a stone wall with no crossing points and couldn't spot any where to get across so I traversed along the wall for what felt like ages trying to pick up some sort of path into the forest where I could take the good track and put some fast and easy miles in to the end. I probably lost an hour in this section just wading through the tussocks. It felt like 3! I was happy to get into the forest eventually and made light work of the last 10km or so back to camp. 

I'd stopped with a runner who'd fallen and had to pull out earlier in the day so I arrived at the finish in just over 11 hours for what I'd made into about 60km. On a trail race I'd probably knock the same distance out in half of the time to give you some perspective on how much longer the terrain could take you!  Camp was again nicely organised and we had the luxury of hot showers. Apart from the boggy bit in the middle of the day and the tussocky area towards the end I could run in those mountains all day! Stunning part of the country I'd likely never have been to if it wasn't for the race! 


Starting to get into a rhythm now, woke up feeling fresh and ready. I knew the first half of the day after running it as part of the support team in 2012. We head through Dolgellau and up on to the  Cader Idris following the ridge around in some patchy clouds. I was moving really well and  it was easy going without needing to navigate. I was soon passing runners who'd taken the earlier starts. The rocky tracks and firm grassy trails suited me nicely and I was able to take good lines down through foot paths and over towards the next few hills before reaching Machynlleth where the support point was but also where there was a Co op where I was a bit greedy on the Soleros! Running down to the town was probably the longest I spent running with anyone in the whole event which was nice and broke up the day a lot! 

I was a bit slow moving out of the cp with a belly full of ice cream and made the mistake of unfolding the whole map to see where we were going at the end of the day... It looked milllles away! It probably was. We were heading a long way south to reach a hill called Plynlimon. Today I clocked in just over 70km in just shy of 11 hours. The terrain on the whole wasn't too bad in terms of bogs and I don't really remember there being too many tussocks. It was starting to feel like I'd actually made a bit of progress having done 3 of the days leaving only a 40 miler and a 35 miler on the following and final day. It was nice to see the camp from the top of the hill and descend down to be greeted by one amazing crew of marshals! Their energy and positivity was relentless! 

I had a rather cold bath in the stream just below camp. To be honest I slid over as the rocks were all covered in algae and within about 90 seconds of me getting back to shore and putting a towel around myself there was a family crossing the bridge... I was just quick enough luckily. The camp was starting to look more like a field hospital at times with people hobbling about on stiff legs and sore feet. There was also a group of runners coming in just inside the cutoff time slightly before 11pm. These guys had been out for a long time! I'd rather not imagine how hard it would have been! 

Day 4

So day 4.. I know it's not exactly just a jog in to the finish from here with still over 65 miles to go but I think a lot of people felt a bit of relief after the 3rd stage. Any hard times perhaps can be fought through if the finish is only one more day away. I started day 4 a little bit late and was pretty much right at the back, knowing none of the route I was quite excited by the size of the map and also the 10km road section at the end.

My calves were feeling a bit tight on the 4th day, I think perhaps because I slept without anything under my feet and face down so my ankle was plantar flexed all night. As I fought off a couple of excited farm dogs I made my way up the first climb pretty steady too reach the land of the tussocks. It was a bit of a trudge through the cloud to pass 3 small reservoirs then follow a fence line leading to some wind turbines and the first control point. After swiping my chip I made my way across some more tussocks to reach a good track which was access road for the wind turbines. A pretty big wind farm built throughout the forest and I was now moving really well. The only thing with forests I was coming to realise is that what's on the map and what is on the ground are often two different things! The track began to swing around hard to the right which I thought was a little weird..... I decided it must be wrong and back tracked about 5 or 10 mins to the last junction and went the other way. A few fast miles and I hit the next cp, all good. From here I managed to get some reasonably good lines over to a small road section. Right about now I caught sight of a group of 4 scrambling through tussocks. I didan extra 200m on the road then hit a good trod up and aroud the hill side to reach the fence line. This had been far faster than the group and I was quite happy to be catching some of the earlier starters finally.

The next couple of hours were quite straight forwards navigationally and providing you stuck to the trods the ground was reasonably easy to move across. Time seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was dropping down the path into the Elan Valley.... Not a clue where that actually is or how you would ever get there but it felt like the true middle of knowhere! The support point was a welcome sight and I was in the mix of runners now so it was nice having people to chat to. Some runners were really suffering and didn't look to be in a good way but each had that drive to keep pushing forwards! Awesome!

It was feeling like a long way but I felt good and was moving through the field as we got to within 20km of the finish and out on to the road. I was making good time on the roads and still running at a decent speed. Most people aroud were walking or occasionally jogging but all moving forward relentlessly. After a bit more farm track and  trail it was time to hit the road. I set to it and got some good pace up and ran it the way into the final camp before the finish. Surely it would be a certain finish for me now if I'd made it to the last day?

Day 5

The final day... I'd got a good idea of the route from the half way point but didn't know any of the bit before. To be honest it was quite good underfoot on the whole and my legs were feeling fine today having propped my feet up during the night. I was one of the last out of camp and after a few miles came across Joe F and we chatted along until the first control point which we almost forgot about! I was quite excited about getting to the end and also the fact that we were passing through something resembling a town aka an ice cream stop. I think people had been keen to start early today and I didn't start to pass many people until about 5km before the half way point. Navigation had been pretty straight forward and I was straight through the checkpoint. So now I knew the rest of the way, onwards and into the hills of the last day. The weather turned as I ascended and there were numerous small groups walking about in the cloud. As the rain began to drive in I slipped a jacket on and continued up the steep climb to the summit of whatever hill we were going up in the Black Mountains. I was pretty confident in my route choice from last time I'd run it and felt like I was moving well. A few people were having a tough time in the mist and my line choice seemed to gain me a hell of a lot of time on some of the groups I had seen in the distance. 

I knew after the next control we dropped down to cross a road then essentially followed a good wide ridge to the final control point! The cloud began to clear, the sun came out and I moved along really enjoying every step yet at the same time almost sad that it was coming to an end... I reached the last point, took a couple of photos and stopped to look around before descending on the final couple of miles to the castle! Now it really felt in the bag then whack... I pretty much disappeared into a bog and was wet from head to toe. No harm done it was only water but I had to laugh... The route skirts around the castle a little just to drag out the last moments of Dragon's Back fun for that little bit longer before a decent climb up into the castle and the finish line!! I had a pretty good bash at running all the way up the hill and was clapped into the finish by some of the amazing crew and other competitors.

A few photos before jogging down to the gift shop for an ice cream and then a lift over to the nights camp at the local rugby club.IT was an ideal venue, nice flat grass, hot showers and the sun shining down. What more could you want?

With the race wrapped up it was time to relax and catch up with friends running and the crew and await the presentation of the famous dragon trophies! A big thank you to Berghaus, 9bar and The Ultra Runner Store for kitting me up. What a fantastic event.

I think there's a lot to talk about regarding strategy although it all depends on what your goals are... I remained pretty comfortable throughout, made sure I looked after my body early on and that I felt strong. If you're looking to race this sort of thing a good back ground of being in the fells and navigating open ground would be something to work on for sure. If you want to be finishing in good time each day then being able to keep a good average pace and choose decent lines across the hills will set you up well, whereas if you're just looking to get to the end and survive it, I think someone who was spot on with nav and could maintain a good walking pace on the whole with some jogging on the flat (ok flattest) bits could get to the end provided they were tough mentally and really wanted that finish line! 

I've now got another 5 day stage race this week (in Spain) only 230km and a good chunk of ascent. Thought I best have a holiday after the Dragon! 

Any questions jump on