Thursday 28 July 2016

Andorra Ultra Trail 170km +13500m

I first spotted the Andorra Ultra Trail a few years ago as I trawled through race calendars looking for 100 mile races and with it falling in a busy time of year it's clashed with a few races I've done in the past like Lakeland and Al Andalus, so this year I decided I'd shake things up rather than do the same races over again and get entered.

The first thing that struck my attention was that the ascent is more than double that of the Lakeland 100 and about 35% more than the UTMB or Northburn 100 milers. I was fully expecting it to be the hardest 100 miler I've done. The previous winning times are over 30 hours and the cut off time is 60 something hours to give an idea. Seeing as my body doesn't cope well going over 2000m I knew I'd have to at least get out there a little bit before hand to get a feel for it.

After my last trail run coaching holiday in June I headed over to Andorra and completed the majority of the route (about 90%) in 4 days carrying a small pack with my overnight stuff in. Generally when  I spend much time above 2000m running I feel totally breathless even at walking pace. The average height of the race is about 2100m with only the start and finish and the mid way checkpoint down at around 900m.

In terms of planning I reckoned with a 7am start on the Friday morning, I could finish at some point on the Saturday, maybe just before dark. I expected somewhere between 36 and 40 hours depending how badly the altitude got me. The legs are stronger than ever at the moment so I didn't really consider having any problems in that department, and after recceing the course I knew what I was in for, the big ? was how my body would do with the altitude.

So lets drop straight into race day and just before 7am everyone is gathered in an old street of a small town Ordino in Andorra, there's a buzz of excitement around as 397 runners are ready to depart with a short loop around the town before starting the first climb, over the first 15km we climb up to 2600m the first high point on the route profile, I believe there was 16 points over 2400m. I started pretty conservatively knowing that there's obviously a long way still to go. I was probably just inside the top 30 and passed most of the climb talking to a Japanese runner who would eventually finish 2nd.

After a long descent down to the first checkpoint at Sorteny Refuge just under 20km in just under 3 hours I was feeling ok so far and moving quicker than on my recce run as with the course markings it was very easy to follow the route. I was in a good rhythm and moving ok but started to feel my breathing deteriorate around 30kms in. There literally was not a cloud in the sky for the whole weekend and the views all around were amazing. I was excited about heading up to the highest peak of Andorra at just over 2900m, Comapedrosa which would be around the marathon distance having done over 4000m of ascent to this point. My pace was barely moving as I gasped for breath just trying to move forwards. I knew we'd drop down lower after this so kept pushing on slowly to be greeted at the summit by a bag piper and some enthusiastic marshals.

A couple more climbs, some massive descents and about 25km I would be at the first big aid station and looking at the time I figured I'd be there before it went dark which despite how bad my breathing was I was still moving well enough to finish just inside my expectations. I passed the next few miles with a Spanish guy and practicing my Spanish on him seemed to pass the time well. It wasn't long before we reached the descent into Margineda and we slowly drifted apart, I even passed a handful of runners.

I'd been managing to take in more calories than I normally would and spent about 10 minutes at the checkpoint eating drinking and getting the head torch out etc ready to push on into the darkness. From memory I think I was about 25th at this point. The next few km is a pretty aggressive climb of about 600m before a lot of climbing from 1200m to 2600m which took me about 4 hours for 8 miles!

The first 50 mile had taken about 17 hours 20 min knowing I had just over the same again to do I thought that my finish time would be probably 38-40 hours if I continued at a similar fashion. My breathing was particularly bad here and I spent a lot of time just sat down taking deep breaths and coughing a lot which was frustrating but I persevered and tried not to look at how slow I was averaging. The next section all the way up to the 130km/80 mile checkpoint at Pas de la casa is pretty remote, there are no roads or anything other than a couple of old stone shelters and huts, I guess if you set off on this section you've got to keep going until the checkpoint otherwise you'll still have a 3 or 4 hour hike to get off the course down to a road. The section stays above 2000m with 5 main climbs to 2500m/2600m or so.

I had an even rougher section through here as I was coughing a lot and having to rest every few minutes even when slowly walking up hill. I had a dip in a river a couple hours later as the weather was getting nicely hot again and after that caught up with two ladies who were moving along well. Myself and the American lady were pretty close together for about 30kms and although my legs didn't feel like they were doing anything, my lungs were working hard to even keep up.

After reaching the Pas de la casa checkpoint I knew it would be tight but I'd be able to finish pretty close to darkness and I was fairly certain I'd finish before midnight. There are 3 big climbs then a final 15km down hill to Ordino. It's basically a marathon from the 80 mile point but you can forget your usual marathon pace when there's a few thousand meters of ascent and you've already run for about 31 hours. I basically just continued on as fast as I could manage (slow as!) and ticked off one climb at a time. I wasn't feeling any worse now, just coughed and wheezed my way along. On the final descent I passed a handful of people, my legs were still happy to run as fast as my lungs would let them. I reached Sorteny checkpoint for the last time and whipped out the head torch for the final 8km or so. It seemed to drag a little looking for the finish but there were still supporters out in the town as I rolled in at 11pm on Saturday night having run for around 40 hours 30 minutes. Have a look at the kit I used here

In terms of how I feel about the race, it's about where I expected time wise though it's just frustrating that on the races where there are significant amounts run at altitude, my performance declines heavily compared to those where the highest altitudes are 2000m or so. It's a fantastically organised and challenging event, I was disappointed there are no finisher medals (you get a nice jacket instead) If you like mountains you should definitely consider a visit to Andorra! There's a lot to do from hiking, running to climbing and mountain biking etc.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Shropshire 3 Peaks - Beyond Marathon

After a couple of months racing and training in Europe I had a spare weekend before I came out to France to hold one of my trail running coaching holidays and it just nicely coincided with the Shropshire 3 peaks race. 40 miles with just over 2000m ascent. I know the area quite well after doing the Apocalypse 100 and 50 mile and also The D.O.N in the same area. Although I didn't specifically recce the route at all but I found that I knew more than half of it from those events.

I like the idea of a linear route and got entered. Soon enough race day, 4 am alarm, in the car at 4.30 and in Ludlow at 6.05, time for a quick drive around the finishing miles and a few laps of some small back roads to find the Rugby club and get registered. Bus to start, all on time and we're gathered just after 8am to hit the trails.

I ran with the Garmin which I'd loaded the route on although didn't really need it initially as the route description was great. Pretty much a few minutes along a narrow trail before it opened out into fields and tracks and small country lanes to reach Stiperstones village and the first bit of ascent. The first climb is about 3km gaining 250m so over before you know it. As I jogged up the views over Shropshire came into view and I have to say it was pretty stunning! I had the Stiperstones ridge to myself and knocked out the next fast 5km section at a good pace before another gradual climb of 3km gaining about 200m up on to the top above Carding mill valley. I descended pretty fast and hit the first checkpoint just over 1 hour 20 for 17km and carried straight on to the ascent of Raglan (not one of the 3 highest peaks but a nice addition) This is probably the steepest climb but it's barely even 1km long so over and done with pretty quickly before some more fast kms to Eaton and up on to Wenlock edge and the 2nd cp at Wilderhope Manor.

One of the volunteers cars wasn't too keen on making it to the 2nd checkpoint so a bit of quick thinking and Wendy was ready and waiting for me with some water before following the route from The D.O.N in reverse (pretty much) to get to Brown Clee hill. I got a bit confused after the hill and spent a couple of minutes figuring out what trail to take about a km later as I'd realised I left the route description at the previous checkpoint. I got the gps out and checked the map before making a second mistake not long after as I ran down a farm track that was parallel to the footpath and reached a dead end. Just a careless mistake to be honest when I realised.

I was closing in on the final cp and also the final hill. It was perfect weather. Not seen a cloud so far and it was nice and warm now in the sun. I stopped for a quick chat at the final cp and I was now in totally new trails that I'd never been on which was quite exciting. I was told the gap behind to 2nd was likely to be over an hour by now though I looked at the watch and thought I could still make the sub 6 hour time. I made my way steadily up the climb and passed a few walkers here and there. You're again rewarded with some fast kms as it's pretty much downhill all the way to the finish over the final 10km. For me the trickiest bit to navigate was the final couple of kms of fields. The signs are there and the route description was pretty spot on it's just a little bit fiddly looking for styles and gates in the fields and hedges. Some lively cows just near some sort of big water pipe/ river that decided they wanted to run around in circles with me until I spotted the gap in the hedge to get out of the field and hit the final road section down into Ludlow and through the town. I pushed quite hard over the last part to try and sneak under the hour. I knew it would be close but didn't look at the watch and just ran.... At least I was 5minutes off the hour and not 1 minute off! 6 hr 5 min all done. I was happy with how the legs did, a bit of lazy nav cost me those few minutes.

After the finish I grabbed a shower and plenty of food and drink and waited just over an hour, as long as I could but had to get back up home for dinner out and a flight after that and so didn't actually get to see anyone else finish. The 2nd and 3rd runner came in together just as I was driving out.

It's a great route taking in many of the Shropshire highlights! There are some great trails indeed. It would make a good first ultra providing you're able to do some easy navigation and have basic map reading skills. Mostly good trails and runnable with a few climbs thrown in there to keep you entertained! If you get the chance to do this route I hope you get such beautiful weather too!
Thanks to the team for looking after us all and well done all who made it out of bed so early to take on the race!

Monday 23 May 2016

Transylvania 100km - Romania

Transylvania 100km (also has 50km and 30km) is known to be a challenging course, with runners facing technical terrain, long ascents and descents, snow on the ground, and altitudes up to 2500m.... along with the local wildlife including bears and wolves (I saw a wild bear a couple of weeks ago and loads of Chamois though didn't hear of anyone seeing anything in the race). The previous 2 editions have had course alterations due to the amount of snow still on the mountains but this year we had the original courses. *some of the photos I took in my recces and have been sent from other people, I didn't have my camera out during the race*

I spent two weeks in Romania leading up to the race and stayed in Busteni which is about half way for the 100km then a couple of days pre race I moved to Bran where the race starts and finishes. I was able to recce out a third of the route and also explore some of the other trails in the area. My first day in Romania I set off up the hill and in a grand total of 11kms I covered 1700m finding lots of snow above 2000m and a lot of the route had chains to help ascend it was that steep. Over the next few days the snow melted dramatically in places although come race day there was still a couple of places with a lot of snow. On the whole it wasn't too bad.

So coming up to race day I had an idea of what to expect having recced what was the highest point of the course and got a feel for the terrain in the area. For comparison there is similar amount of elevation in the Transylvania 100km as the Lakeland 100 mile in the UK - almost 7000m.
Both the 100 km and 50km set out at the same time at 6am in the grounds of Bran castle. Here's a photo I took the day after the race.

So anyway... the start ... We set out with about 2km heading out of Bran on the road before picking up a track and following the markings up into the woods and beginning to climb gaining around 1400m in the first 10km.

After people had settled down a bit from the initial sprint through town I dropped into about 10-12th position though we were basically in a big pack, going into the woods and a group of about 8 missed a turning off the main track so I shouted them and we all piled up through the trees.

I eased past a couple of runners heading up the climb and it didn't seem long before we came out on to the ridge and got a real view of the mountains just as the sun was shining over the mountains too. The route traverses around a peak before descending 450m and to CP 1 at Cabana Malaiesti 13km in 2 hours 1 minute. One runner just ahead and 4 more in the distance. As we began to move across some snow I was looking up in to the end of the valley wondering where we might ascend.... You can see the trail of runners heading up the gully in the photo below (Thanks Steve!) This section has a fixed rope and basically you just had to kick steps into the snow as you dragged your body up to the top and onto the ridge to reach the high point and CP 2 Omu Peak at 2507m having climbed another 800m. Now 3 hours in there were 2 runners from the 50km and 2 runners from the 100km ahead of me. I'd expected to reach Busteni just under half way in 7-8 hours and so I was roughly on track.

As you can probably guess there's not a lot of flat on this route and being at the highest point it was now time to descend once more to reach the 3rd CP at Pestera 1600m. I couldn't see anyone ahead or behind but to be honest I was pretty focused on descending smoothly as possible through the rocky trail and occasional snow patches. The markings were a little unclear here and I saw some in the distance and headed towards them checking the gps. I then saw the checkpoint hard to the right and checked in before the next climb up to Cabana Babele and the Sphinx! 

It's a good honest climb initially then becomes a bit more gradual but fairly well covered in snow as I approached the 30km point the sun was strong and despite hiking through snow it was incredibly warm as I headed back to Omu for the 2nd time. Still no sign of any runners around until I saw a few people who had just began descending from their first visit to the Omu cp. When I recced this section the descent was deep in snow and running was a bit of a joke. I caught a glimpse of the runner ahead and pulled a 3 or 4 minute gap on him quite quickly. As I got close I saw him disappear deep into the snow well over his waist. I offered a hand but it took a bit of digging before he was out and we set off downhill, just a few minutes and we were off the snow and onto real trail. The terrain is awesome and I loved the descent into Busteni. I was just outside the town and couldn't see any markings at all after the previous section had been really well marked so became unsure of the route, I knew on the gps it was telling me to go right so I attempted to call the phone numbers printed on the race number for help. I can't speak more than a few words in Romanian and the lady on the other end of the phone couldn't help me so I called a Romanian friend who was helping at the cp in Busteni. Literally a minute later I got to the cp. A quick top up of drinks and I was off out the cp now in 2nd position heading up the ski slope. A couple of minutes and the markings disappeared once again so I was running through the woods trying to follow the gps again before I came across some more marking which was different to the gps. I took the markings and all was well! Just a 1100m climb up to the next cp.

The watch just ticked over to 50km in 7hr 59 and I knew I was on track to finish either just before or just after dark. I'd expected to be done whilst it was still daylight and packed a tiny head torch as even on a bad run I'd only have a bit to do in the dark. Aside from the final 5km the rest of the second half was all new to me, I hadn't recced any. The next few miles were quite straight forwards although I felt like I was moving slowly I was rolling along comfortable and just keeping focused on staying with the markers. The clouds started to roll in overhead and brought with them a shower of rain which would last about an hour I guess. It was at its worse as I hit the 75km checkpoint on a ridge and I stood under the tent for a few minutes and for some reason really felt like eating, so I took a few checkpoint snacks and then headed on before I had time to cool down. 

It was largely downhill to the next checkpoint and quite straight forwards except again the course marking was different to the gps file. I followed the marking and after a couple of km reached the small town and checkpoint at 85km. There's still over 1000m of climb left and I was beginning to wonder if the course would be 100km long or if there would be any bonus miles on the end. I'd not paid much attention to the final climbs and looking back probably would have taken a bit more fuel on to keep my energy levels up. I felt like I was barely moving on the final climbs though in reality I was making some decent progress. There were some flashing lights in places along with reflective markers to follow and navigation was pretty easy going.  I passed a couple of guys who were doing the 50km and I chatted to them briefly whilst I got my torch out and darkness fell. I might as well have taken a candle to be honest. 

The final 10kms were pretty muddy descending through the woods after the rain and also the 50km runners coming through earlier, I slid over a few times in my racing slick shoes but it wasn't long before I was coming out of the woods and onto a track which I'd run to a few days earlier. I knew it was only 5km from here (now at 101km on my watch already) just then I saw something to my left in the trees. It was two animals that looked very much like wolves and a couple of other sets of eyes reflecting in the trees as they turned and disappeared. I didn't have a great torch or a camera... though I definitely wasn't hallucinating I don't think they were dogs as most of the dogs seem to start barking when you see them... Either way they weren't interested and now I knew the remainder of the route back to the town I cracked on and pushed on the final kms before dropping out on the main road in town. I didn't see any more markings and wasn't sure exactly how you were meant to finish the route so I just stayed on the pavement and around to the front of the castle where we started and up to the finish line! (turns out this was right) in a whopping 16 hours 20 something minutes. Still, to my surprise in 2nd position though I never saw the leader. I thought 3rd might have caught back up though I wasn't moving as slowly as I thought at the time. 

Altogether the route is incredible, it would be ideal if there was less or no snow on the route as there wasn't a lot of running going on in that but it makes for a great adventure. I did have a few issues with the course marking, not up to the same standard as other races I've been doing in the past few months and to be honest without the gps I would have really struggled at a couple of points. The checkpoints were really good with plenty to eat and drink and all the pre race info and registration was flawless! Definitely a challenging event if that's what you're into! The area is fantastic and I'd be well up for coming back to explore some more! I've had a really great time in Romania and everyone I've met has been incredibly helpful! It was a very popular race with fellow Brits too this year so it was great to catch up with everyone who I've not seen for a while including the guys from Team OA events and Mr Ultra magazine himself! Dracula even came out to present us with prizes! 

I'm heading back to the UK this week briefly before going out to France to set up for the next coaching holiday in Morzine on the 12th June. My next big race is the Andorra Ultra Trail 170km in July though I'll be keeping busy with a few other events before that! The main goal with that one is to get around in less than 40 hours which sounds slow but is the hardest 100 miler I've heard of in Europe.

Monday 9 May 2016

Sky running Serbia - Bobija 56km +3000m

Whilst being over in Croatia for the 100 mile of Istria I thought I saw a race for the following weekend in the neighbouring country Serbia, turns out I got my dates wrong and it was two weeks after! Probably a good thing really. It meant that I had time to travel down Croatia and check out some potential locations for a coaching holiday and explore some mountains in Montenegro also, before flying up to Belgrade where the race organisers had arranged for me to meet some local runners who were traveling down to the race location on the Thursday night.
Before the race I'd been sent all the details of the race in English and everyone I spoke to was incredibly helpful and welcoming! The race itself begins in a small town called Ljubovija close to the Bosnian boarder and finishes at a mountain hut nearby so the race has a lot more uphill than downhill.  We arrived around 10pm and got registered which was quick and easy before I headed to my hotel up the road.

Before the race after looking at the course details, I'd thought anything just under under 6 hours should be a decent run considering the uphill nature of the course and considering it was likely to have some technical terrain. There was also a 26km run starting at the same time but turning off at a checkpoint about 15km in so made a mental note not to go that way! The weather on the morning was very low cloud and foggy, although I didn't notice it raining the ground was wet which I know doesn't bode well for the Brooks trail shoes I had with me.

From the start there was a group moving around 6 min miles through the town as we had a few kms before the first climb on a 4x4 type track. I sat just behind and just ticked along nicely as we started to spread out there was at least 10 ahead of me maybe 15. The funny thing about races with multiple distances is you can never be sure who's in what race... Sometimes the shorter races attract less experienced runners and all the 'competitive' ones choose the longer distance so they actually end up going faster than those on the short distance or.... Other times you get the fast ones doing the short distance and moving far quicker than those on the Ultra.... And sometimes it's just a complete mix!!!! Thinking about positions therefore fairly pointless!

The first climb was just about gradual enough to run and moving through the mist passing the first checkpoint I got my card stamped (prove you've visited the checkpoint) and passed two runners. Visibility was low and although the marking was great you couldn't see very far ahead. I could hear some footsteps behind on a couple of occasions over the next few kms as I was just doing my best to stay on my feet over some of the muddier sections.

Reaching the 2nd CP a volunteer pointed to turn left thinking I was on the 26km but when I said 56 they all told me right which is what the instructions said and also there was a big sign to direct us the correct way. This gave me an impression I must be near the front but still plenty of kms remain. A runner followed me the same way also doing the 56km and I noticed some fresh looking footprints in the mud.

It wasn't long before we hit the long descent, I was going as quick as I could with the slippery ground although it was quite rocky it would be quite straightforward to run in the dry. Suddenly I appeared behind another runner and the one behind me caught up also as we reached the bottom of the gorge together about halfway into the race. It was slippery single track through the gorge and then a good climb up to the next CP. I had to walk a couple of spots up here as it was slippery and quite steep in places but mostly ran. The route flattens out a little and the fog was thick. On one of the long switch backs I noticed there was nobody behind me and just carried on looking out for the up coming CP.
A few minutes later I heard a voice shouting although I had no idea what it was saying and thought nothing of it. The voice continued and after a minute or so I stopped and out of the mist came a guy gasping for breath. Turns out he was from the checkpoint and I'd run past before they were ready and he'd been trying to chase me after they saw the back of me. I had to run back with him to the checkpoint a few minutes away because he didn't have the stamp to mark my card. As we ran back a lady from the checkpoint had the stamp and I turned back around and continued on the route. I'd expected the two previous runners to catch me as it wasn't long since I'd seen them and after spending 3 to 4 mins there sorting out the checkpoint I must have moved much quicker on the ascent out of the gorge.

Some more climbing over an 8km section to reach the finish at 41km  but.... We have to do a 15 km loop from here before we really finish! I guessed by now I was most probably leading as the next checking was covered over and i caught the volunteers by surprise, although maybe not... I couldn't tell and kept the intensity up moving as well as I could between the occasional bit of skiing on the mud. I think I'd gone through the marathon distance around 3.40 from memory but I realised I was going to be far quicker than I'd expected unless there was something crazy ahead. I could remember there being a decent climb near the end but hadn't paid that much attention. Then.... The route began to descend... A long way.... This is only really going to mean one thing! I popped out onto a short road section just under 50km and reached the final checkpoint now rejoining the 26km route although they'd all passed through by now.

I checked the watch again and remember thinking there's perhaps a sub 5hr on the cards unless either a very steep climb coming up, like a scramble almost, Sure enough we turned off the road and the trail began to climb, quite steep but nothing crazy as we traversed a little across the hill.... Then there was a sharp right turn literally straight up the face of the hillside into the mist. Haha yes the elevation is coming alright! I pulled on trees, grass, dug my fingers into the ground to drag myself up the hill. It was an awesome climb and my body was feeling good for it as I pushed on. It did become more gradual near the top through the forest as I continued to run. I was passing a few runners from the 26km and knew that it must be close to the finish. It was all quite sudden as the mist was still lingering and then I spotted a building and the finish!

All over in 5hrs 8 minutes. I'd taken over 40 minutes from the previous record and arrived in first. I had a quick shower under a cold hose pipe to get all the mud and grit off before being whisked inside to where there was a hot fire and warm food. I spent the afternoon chatting to some of the runners also finishing and there were a couple of busses to get everyone back down the mountain to the town later on. Although a nice temperature for running I'm sure the views are usually much better usually.
I'd like to say a big thankyou to all the team involved with organising the event, I had a really good experience and was well looked after. Well done to all the runners of course and thanks for making my trip to Serbia a good one!

Saturday 30 April 2016

100 miles of Istria, Croatia 22hr 03min

170km with 7000m of ascent crossing the Istria region of Croatia, relatively close to the boarder with Italy and Slovenia nearby. The team organising the race have got things spot on logistically and looking back, I can't really think where you could improve the event. The finish is in a town against the sea called Umag and all the registration and finish ceremonies/ meals etc are here so it makes sense to stay here and take the bus to the start on the Friday afternoon to the start. After the Northburn 100 mile last month I wasn't approaching this with quite the same focus and intensity but was fully expecting to be faster here (3000m less elevation although a touch longer) with the same kind of approach it would probably crack below the 20 hour mark.
Sooooo.... Friday there's a fleet of coaches transporting runners to the start in Labin which has an old town square and hosts the start of the race. Lots of excitement here as the locals start to line the streets to see us all off.

I started near to the front within the top 20 as the path narrows within the first minute or two of running. I found myself behind a small group and moved ahead after about 15 mins when the path opens out. Probably now around tenth but just cruising along steady and settling into a rhythm. The only concern I really had was using new shoes and it felt as if my calves were working harder than normal although I was running OK, just kept at it.

Around 20km in the first big climb up to about 1400m and with a 4 PM start it meant the front end get to see the sunset near the top of the ascent which was pretty stunning! Beautiful weather for the whole race was forecast and apart from just throwing a jacket on briefly as I crossed the highest point of the course I ran in a vest.

The terrain in general is quite tricky underfoot with lots of small rocks, the most tricky I found were the sections going through rocky paths with long grass growing through although some sections going through woods with roots rocks and fallen leaves were also exciting! I was getting a little bit sleepy on a section of about ten km leading towards half way, maybe something to do with it being the middle of the night. The markings were incredible, you could literally always see the next marker and would pass more than one every minute.

Moving through the night in near perfect conditions I arrived with eventual 3rd place about a minute ahead at the 89km checkpoint which is the major halfway ish point and has drop bags and all that kind of stuff. Changed batteries in my torch and grabbed some more gels etc to restock my pack and was back out and moving well quickly.

Over the next section my legs didn't feel very lively, although the second half of the course is far easier on paper, overall I didn't feel I was moving that well between 100km and the finish. There are some shorter races taking place and joining our course and during the second half I thought I must have lost about 15 places although by the finish only 2 were in the 100 mile the rest were doing the 100km and 70km events I guess!

At one point I was running towards the 70 mile point and I hadn't seen a marking for about a minute! Normally in most races this isn't uncommon but having been so regular before this point I wasn't sure what to do. I decided as it  was a good track and there wasn't any obvious turnings I would carry on but checked the time and decided if nothing came up in half a km I'd go back. So half a km and I turned back... There was a runner coming towards me and he said we were OK but called someone and checked and we continued the way I had been going for about 5 minutes and the markers were back! All good i was happy to use those minutes checking the direction and it wasn't long before arriving at Hum checkpoint.

There are about 7 climbs of 400m or just less in the second half followed by a relatively easy final 15km. The day was beginning to warm up nicely as I picked off the next few checkpoints. Some beautiful old towns perched up on hills and all the volunteers were incredible! Time wasn't exactly flying by though I was enjoying the scenery and the weather couldn't be better! It wasn't long before I'd reached the final 30km and although it felt fairly slow I managed in about 3 hours taking me gently to the finish 18 minutes off 4 th position. There was a wide variety of countries taking part with 8 different nationalities in the top 10 which is great to see. Once again some fantastic organisation, everything was really straight forward and carefully planned!

I'm essentially building towards 170km in Andorra in July which had almost double the ascent of this so simply surviving it seems like a challenging idea. Once I get out there I'll have a better idea what I'm in for but anything much under 40 hours would place the top 10 in previous years for comparison!

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Northburn 100 mile New Zealand 2016

Back in 2008 I spent almost 2 years in New Zealand, ever since I left I always wanted to go back. I was mainly bouldering then, did some hiking too but wasn't really a runner. I decided that to make it a worthy trip I'd pack in a few races and base myself out in the mountains of Wanaka to train.
The Northburn 100 mile has been running for a few years now and has grown it's reputation for being wild and tough, the hills are very exposed, tracks are generally a bit rough underfoot with some off piste tussocky, spear grass lined patches here and there. In terms of the route it's just a slither over 100 mile with around 10000m of ascent... Some people were claiming 11 but I clocked on just under 10 including my little diversion. Weather-wise we got dry conditions with some strong winds on the top, (i got blown over a fence and had to crawl at one point) it was pretty hot down in the valley. Had it been less windy it would have been hotter... That would probably have caused more issues than the wind.

Kit check and registration was Friday evening then a very entertaining briefing from Terry, one of the organisers... We got a good and detailed run through of the course along with advice like
'The entire area is a big mass of hazards for you runners'
'Beware of the foliage'
The course had grown a bit since previous editions apparently an extra 1000m of climbing had been squeezed in. To give an idea of difficulty  there is a 48 hour cut off.
Come Saturday morning 6 am start we lined up along with 50km and 100km runners and set out into the dark. There is an initial flat 5km loop before heading off on the first long gradual climb to 1600m at about 25km. I'd ended up with the lead 50km runner until about 15km in where I moved ahead as we reached rougher ground. I hadn't expected to be leading ahead of the shorter races too but was happy with my effort levels and took it as a good sign. It was cloudy up high at this point so I just kept paying attention to the markings and passed through a checkpoint before starting to descend. It all went fairly smoothly I cruised down, kept sipping through water and grazed off a bag of jelly snakes and reached another CP where the marshal informed me I was starting the 'loop of despair'....
I jogged on up the climb and saw the leading 50km runner about 5-10 mins behind though nobody else as far as I could see. The course weaved around a gully and I followed the tape to a good track which started to descend. The previous checkpoint came back into view and I thought great! The path met the previous track I'd run up earlier and I carried on down to the checkpoint where the marshal informed me I shouldn't be here again!!! I'd been confidently following markers the whole time and couldn't figure what had happened. After a minute or two trying to figure out what happened I saw the map in the car that the checkpoints each had. I took a look and set off to retrace my steps back up the hill.

I'd done just shy of 3km extra and about 20 mins when I saw a guy I'd meet a few weeks earlier heading towards me past a marker. I stopped him and we scanned around to see some markers over the fence in the next paddock. I ripped a couple of the markers and tied on extra so it was more obvious. 2 runners had gone the correct way off the 50km and me and Paul had gone wrong, at this point nobody else has reached the turn. From this point I was stopping at nearly every bend and twist to look for markers and had a really stressful next few km. I then saw a lady running who wasn't in either of the ultras but was in the half marathon and that confused me even more... After stopping and starting, I decided just to carry on to the end of the loop and see if I was on course or not and decide what to do from there. Luckily turns out I was on track though two 50km runners had finished before me. (Well done Lucy and Paul)

I'd planned to throw down a tin of rice pudding here in an attempt to eat more than I usually do. I had about a third of a tin but decided that wasn't going down well and headed out on the second loop. I was trying to regain my focus after losing around 30 mins on loop one I was concerned about the markings and really hesitant at junctions. The course layout is pretty confusing with various loops crossing and weaving all over. The maps that cp staff had were good, would have been no problems at all if runners were given those to. I didn't take any wrong turns for the rest of the race but being in the lead meant I was the first at checkpoints and together with some of the marshals we had to figure out where I was actually meant to go next, had i not double checked with a particular checkpoint on loop 3 I would have just been sent the wrong way. They called to HQ to check where to send me as I was certain I should be climbing more.

Anyways... I was out on the second 50km loop (different to the first) and was still on track for what I thought would be a sub 24 hour time. I reckoned if I did the first 100km in 12 hours I would have 12 hours to do the last 60 odd km loop which would be fairly easy. Moving up the next climb back to 1600m I felt like I was crawling, I regretted the rice pudding and decided from there I'd stick to liquid calories like usual. I lay down in a stream for a few minutes to cool off and it was like hitting the reset button. I finished the rest of the climb and here came the windy ridge... It was here I got blown over a fence then a little later had to crawl on my hands and knees along a section of the ridge as I just couldn't move into the wind. I've been blown off my feet a few times by strong gusts but this was sustained strong wind. I was feeling good and treated to some awesome views of leaning rock. There was a van checkpoint here and the guy inside couldn't get the door open against the wind. I confirmed the direction and headed downhill one more.

I felt really strong over the next few km and the second 25km of the loop just breezed past, it wasn't long before I was heading back in to the main aid station and finishing loop 2. The watch was showing 107km in 12.44, considering my early detour I was happy with that and topped up my water and got more batteries etc for the night that was to close in shortly.
Another long climb here about 12km gaining 1200m. I knew there were 3 more decent climbs on the loop but didn't really pay any attention to the time from now. I was visiting the same checkpoints as the previous loop but a totally different order. As I was now crossing paths regularly with people still on the previous loop I spent a lot of time trying to check I was going the right way. The last thing I would have wanted was to go off course. The terrain was pretty similar aside from a little descent to a water race where a few safety ropes had been rigged up to stop anyone jumping off the edge. Soon enough I'd hit the little mountain hut checkpoint TW for the final time after the two climbs and was just 20km from the finish including a final climb. I'd had word that I was miles clear of 2nd and so enjoyed cruising down the long descent to a final cp. Just one more hill! Everything felt great and from the top it was obviously all downhill to the finish and I was passing many runners coming the other way who were just starting out on their last 60km loop. I shouted a few 'well dones' but tried not to give away that I was about to finish.

I rolled in just after 4am finishing in 22 hours 11 mins. I'd like to say a huge thank you and well done to those involved both organising, competing and supporting! Together it all added up to a great event!

I've not counted recently but it's getting toward 20x 100 mile or longer races that I've done, all my highest placing and generally best runs have been on majority liquid calories and minimal solids. Bottom line for the longer races you need to be putting calories in one way or another, I hear of a lot of people struggling to fuel properly which can lead to some epic drops in pace. When I was doing my first couple of years of ultras I ate a lot more solid food I guess as I was less fit my stomach could keep up with digesting stuff whereas now I can keep a much higher average pace it seems easier to stick to liquid.
Heading back to Europe soon, my next trail run coaching week is in June (details on my website) and I've a few races lined up before then leading up to Andorra Ultra Trail in July (170km with 13500m ascent)
Should be interesting!

Sunday 6 March 2016

Motatapu 51km Ultra - Wanaka Nz

******some of the photos I have taken below were from my recce run from the course******

At 51km with about 3000m ascent the race sounds a good challenge from the start, combine this with some quite twisty trails covered in roots, a lot of river crossings (and the best part of 3km actually in the river) and most brutal of all.... a 6am start time, it starts to sound like great fun!

Before the race I'd had a quick look at the route and recced the first climb out and back. I'd noticed that last years first place was over 7 hours and thought it sounded slow though after reading a blog it had been a wet day so I guess that costs a bit of time. The Motatapu track is a popular hiking trail and I read a description which sounded all good apart from one part which said 'at Xkm you can enter the river and follow it OR climb out of the valley and take the high route' ... I first thought ok, a dry river bed? Maybe with some water in there in odd patches?

So the race has about 2.5km on wide gravel road before hitting the trail properly. I decided after what happened at Shotover Marathon I best start right at the front as the track is pretty narrow and twists it's way undulating along a trail against a small river and it would make any overtaking difficult. There are 4 main climbs, the first goes from 300m to over 1200m in 12km and you'll notice from the profile that the last 20km is mostly downhill (although not quiiiite that straightforward) with 30km - 40km mostly actually in the river or along the banks and higher sections of riverbed out of the water before a relatively fast last 13km on 4wd track with numerous river crossings around knee deep.

So 5.45am about 150 of us gathered in the dark at Glendhu Bay near Wanaka. A brief briefing again mentioning this river business which at this point was still a mystery to me before we lined up ready to go. I set off running on the shoulder of a guy for a minute or so before moving ahead on my own, the sound of hundreds of footsteps behind as I headed into the darkness. I knew the first checkpoint and just beyond from my recce so was happy to lead and pick up the marker poles every few hundred meters as we weaved along next to the river. At a gate in deer fence there was a guy with me and then a gap maybe a minute at most to the next torches. Soon we were in the woods and the twisty, rooty, trail kept us on our toes, it's very narrow and weaves along undulating but generally trending uphill.

Suddenly the trail disappeared and I found myself dropping into the gully down a steep bank seeing the trail to the corner of my eye. I couldn't stop until the bottom and turned around as the guy just behind shouted and I scrambled up and caught back up. We stayed together and chatted a little on the way to the Fern Bern hut CP1 at around 10km and had to do a kit check so bags off and a quick run through of the 'extensive' kit list (more than I've had to carry on most 100 milers but as long as everyone is out having fun!) The daylight was breaking through and torches were off.

We were on our way within less than a minute I guess and continued to climb. About 30 mins later we hit the first decent descent and I built nearly a minute or so of a gap and started the next climb at a comfortable pace allowing Chris to catch up with a runner back in the distance visible. We stayed together up the climb, I was interested to see if I'd build another gap on the next descent or whether perhaps 2nd had just stopped briefly perhaps.

Again hitting the 2nd descent at almost 20km I pulled gap between us and again a comfortable climbing pace brought us together again. I didn't want to try and push a real gap until this much talked about river section if possible. There were some stunning ridge sections and some impressive valleys and peaks around us. I was itching to get my GoPro out but didn't want to get distracted again.

We dropped down from the 4th peak and down to the river. We were making good progress and then here was the river. Two signs one saying high water and one for low water level, so we took the low water level and I plunged waist deep into the river. After a bit of wading it was actually possible to jump from rock to rock in places and scurry along the bank from time to time though you were getting wet no matter how you did it. After a while we hit the penultimate checkpoint, we were able to take the 4x4 track that was parallel to the river although this still crossed the river numerous times.

I was pretty happy to stretch the legs out and push on averaging just over 7 min miles for the last hour of running and river crossings. I managed to build up a 6 min gap and 2nd place Chris who I'd run with earlier kept well clear of 3rd.

The finish in Arrowtown was pretty busy with plenty going on. Over 3500 athletes with the MTB race, Triathlon, Marathon and the Miners Trail 15km all finishing at different times after we all had staggered starts. I had about 6 hours to wait for the prize giving so walked into the old town and had lunch before coming back and doing some clapping, having a massage, lounging in the sun and catching up with friends.

Another stunning race in NZ. I think if I had to choose between this or Shotover I'd go with this one purely because it's a bit longer and finishes within easy walking distance of town (just about an ultra by about 11km ;) ) ideally though I'd recommend the both of them!

For me that's basically my last longer run before the Northburn 100 mile in 2 weeks. After that I'm back in the UK on the whole before hitting the Alps in June for the next trail run coaching week (see for the details if you're interested.

Shotover Moonlight Marathon, Queenstown NZ

At around a month out from my next 100 mile (Northburn 100mile) a trail marathon with 2700m ascent is ideal for a long run, basically like doing a quarter of the 100 mile distance and ascent wise. This is one of the most stunning trail marathons I've done! A lot of the route is more 'off piste' than easy trail, some short steep climbs and some fantastic ridges, and narrow water race tracks.

The whole experience is pretty special starting out with a bus into the start at Shotover Canyon, the mountain road is barely wide enough for a small bus and is carved into the side of the cliff in places. Originally dug out around the gold rush times of Otago I believe.

On to the race we start out in a river bed and there's a 20m dash across the beach into pretty much single track for the majority of the first 10km. I didn't expect it to be quite like that and ended up stuck in the line of runners until we eventually got into a little bit of open space over an hour later. I made the most of the steady pace as there literally wasn't room to overtake, you're skirting around the mountain side. I got a few videos and lots of photos.

Along with the marathon there was a 30km which had our start and finish but took out a few of the climbs so it became a little bit confusing as to positioning but I never even saw the front of the field by the time I started over taking people I came across on the way to the halfway point I guess I'd reached around 10th.

Generally, there was a lot of river crossings and twisty trail through the trees, some short climbs thrown in and all in all it was fantastic scenery. Even a short section through a river to climb a ladder beside a waterfall! I moved a few more positions ahead as we hit a 500m climb to the 30km point before another ridge on sheep tracks and a decent descent to follow.

The later stages we reached a 4x4 track and a good climb out and over a hill before I guess around 6 or 7km with river crossing after river crossing which was sooo refreshing the first time but had had just enough after nearly 20 of them! I picked off a few more runners though I think they were all in the 30km race eventually rolling in 6th in 5 hours 20 odd mins. With reflection I did get a bit carried away with the GoPro-ing but I had a great time out there. The race was awesome, the only thing that would perhaps improve it could be a slightly staggered start.

You'd do well to find a more exciting trail marathon anywhere, if you know of one, let me know!