The journey of an ultra runner

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Shared Ambitions: The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

I first heard of the UTMB in 2008 when I was doing the Transalp race. I had wanted to do it ever since. After having watched the start of the race last year while on holiday I planned to put an entry in for the CCC ( a shorter race in the same series) as I didn't think I had enough points for the UTMB. To get an entry for the race you have to enter a ballot which opens in December. On the day entries opened I entered my details only to realise that I had the full eight points required to enter the UTMB. I did for at least a few seconds consider entering the CCC but knew the ultimate goal was the UTMB so thought what the heck. After a months wait I got the news I wanted, the ballot had been in my favour and I had a place.
Eight months of focused hill training later and I was making my way to the Place du Triangle de l’Amitie
On the way to the start
Trying to stay in the shade, a 2 hour wait.
in Chamonix where the race starts. I felt a strange mix of nervousness, excitement and relief to be getting started. We had been in Chamonix for 5 days at this stage and had to refrain from too much running because of the race so was very glad to eventually get started. There were 2300 runners on the start line and with no waved start people start queueing early. Two hours before the start I made my way to the start with Caroline McKay (above) and we found a shaded spot to sit.Temperatures were sitting at low 30's and we were having to try hard not to get trampled by other runners and spectators.

The start line
At 6pm we started out journey to the sounds of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. The crowds lining the streets as we left Chamonix were phenomenal and I knew I was in for an unforgettable experience.
The first section consisted of a fairly flat trail to Les Houches followed by a 700m climb to Le Delevret before a steep 900m decent into St Gervais. As I reached top of the first climb I met Bob Steel and Scott Bradley two other Scottish runners, we ran together for a while happy that the heat of the day was easing as dusk approached.
In the check point at St Gervais I had a quick scout around to see what food was available  to try and plan my race nutrition a bit better. The check points provided water, tea, coffee, coke and noodle soup to drink and energy bars, cheese, meat, bread, dried fruit, fresh fruit and some cakes to eat.
I opted for some dried fruit and fruit bread as well as a quick top up of my bottles. I left St Gervais in 374th place. The next section was a fairly uneventful 577m climb to Les Contamines, by this stage it was approaching 10pm and the sun had set long ago but the party atmosphere here was still going strong. It gave me a lift before the long climb up to the Refuge Croix Bonhomme. I felt comfortable and was enjoying the cool the darkness had brought.
Enjoying the cool of the night
An enjoyable steep 5km descent brought us into Les Chapieux. By this stage like so many others I had began to enjoy the noodle soup provided at the check points and was struggling to eat a lot else, I forced down a few other bits of food and hit the trail again. Leaving Les Chapieux a steady tarmac climb took us to Col de la Seigne and the Italian border.
By this time it was after 1am but with a full moon I was able to climb into the darkness without the use of my head torch. Leaving the Col was an awe inspiring sight seeing the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains illuminated by the moon. I felt very privileged to be in a position to participate in an event like this and have the physical ability to consider it. I felt really excited to be heading into some quite remote mountain trails in the dead of night.
Leaving the Col there were 2 or 3  hardy supporters at the side of the trail and one of them was playing music through a small speaker. Ever since I was 16 I have never ran with music and in all honesty when running in the hills I just enjoy sounds of nature but I have got to admit the sounds of "Lost Frequencies- Are you with me?"  gave me a little spring to my step. Maybe I should consider this in the future!
After a short decent we entered new territory for the UTMB course as we headed up to Col de Pyramides. As we ascended the path it became more like a Scottish hill walkers path than the usual well trodden alpine trail, a bit boggy and wet before we hit the first really technical section of the race, a lovely boulder field. My endless days in the Scottish Munro's served me well and it wasn't much of an issue but I was glad of a decent head torch on this section. I know not everyone shared my sentiment on this section.
 I hit the next checkpoint at 4:21am, after a brief stop to refuel I for the first time felt slightly cold. I considered putting on my jacket but decided against it as I was confident I would warm up again once I got going. I'd guess it was maybe 10 degrees, so not surprising some of the locals were wrapped up by this time, shorts and t-shirt were enough for me. It wasn't long before we started the next 500m climb to Arrete du Mont-Favre, the final climb before the mammoth 1200m descent into Courmayeur. My quads were screaming at me as I made this descent but I was buoyed  by the sunrise and by the thought of reaching Courmayeur which marked roughly the half way mark of the race.
The sun is coming up
This check point is the first place they offer hot food and conscious of the fact I hadn't been able to eat as much as I would have liked I was keen to fuel up. We were also able to leave a drop bag at this point. I reached Courmayeur at 6:30am, quickly washed some of the dirt sweat and suncream of my face and grabbed a bowl of pasta. After pushing the dry pasta around the bowl for 20 mins, changing my socks and applying some more sun cream I gave up on the hot food opting instead for some more noodle soup, bread and some apple compote. Before starting the UTMB I had decided that while I was going to push hard I wanted to treat it as an experience rather than a race. Accordingly to this point I hadn't looked at a single split. To give me a rough idea of my progress I had written splits to Courmayeur for a 25h, 30h and 35h finish.  My primary goal being a finish rather than a specific time.  Despite a fast finish not being my priority I was a bit disappointed to be 40mins behind the 30h split.
As I left my legs felt stiff and sore and I was worried about the fact I hadn't managed to eat much. Running thought the pretty old streets in the dawn light I thought it would be nice to come back one day and explore the town at a more leisurely pace. Leaving Courmayeur in 184th place there was a couple miles of tarmac before an 800m climb to Refuge Bertone. As I climbed I was conscious that another runner was right on my tail, given that the path was pretty narrow I asked would he like to pass. He declined and we chatted for a while. A  Polish runner called Bart it was his first attempt at the UTMB as well, we shared the ambition to make that iconic finish line.
At the refuge concerned about the my lack of calories I had a mug of coke, as I finished that and topped up my bottles I was surprised to hear Bart ask "are you ready?" Now  I am happy to admit that I can often be a bit anti social when I race, preferring to focus on the race and looking after myself but it was nice to have some company. As we passed Refuge Bertone heading towards Refuge Bonatti we followed 7km of undulating trails with in my recollection some of the best views of the whole race.
A short steep descent brought us into Arnuva. I was feeling pretty good and lifted by the fact that our next climb would see us over the highest point of the race and despite there still being 3500m of climb to come after that it seemed like a small victory.
As we climbed through this area popular with walkers I took every opportunity I could to cool myself, filling my cap with water and pouring it over my head every time we passed a stream on the course. Passing Grand Col Ferret I was in 153 place and began yet another quad bashing 1000m descent into La Fouly and after a quick stop to refuel another 500m of descent awaited. At Praz de Fort a small village at the bottom of the hill I remember looking at the rather smudged temporary tattoo on my arm that showed the race profile. It looked a short climb to Champex but this conflicted with a sign I passed which showed 8 km to Lac Champex. It was  for a biking route and not the route we were following and in my head I thought it couldn't be that far. We left the village and climbed into the forest, the shade was nice but I was beginning to feel pretty wasted, surely it couldn't be far. Unfortunately looking at the contours of where we were going I knew we still must be some way off the hill was far to steep to accommodate a lake. For the first time in the race doubts began to enter my head. I still had over 20miles and 3000m to cover, I felt completely empty as I eventually reached the checkpoint at Lac Champex. I  optimistically picked up another bowl of pasta and a few other snacks and sat down. The noodle soup went down as did another apple compote but even the thought of the pasta made me feel nauseous, this time I didn't even manage a single bite. I just wanted to lie down. For a brief few minutes I lay on the bench I was sitting on, before one of the volunteers came over. She said "there is a bed next door if you want to lie down". No way!! That would have been a really bad idea. Still feeling nauseous and again not having eaten as much as I'd have liked we set out once again.
Champex aid station a bit later in the race
 Running  along the edge of lake Champex in the blazing sun it was so tempting to jump into the crystal clear water. Thankfully before long the nausea passed and I began to feel more confident that the combination of noodle soup and coke was enough to keep me going. After a short descent we climbed 865m to La Giete. It was around here somewhere that Bart checked his splits and said "you know if we keep pushing really hard we could make it under 30 hours". Now up until this point I had been fairly relaxed about times but with only two more climbs to go and over 85 miles already covered I was ready to give what I had left. We descended quickly into Trient, only two more climbs to go I told myself. While I was keen to push on the distance was beginning to catch up with Bart. He told me I should go on myself. While it did cross my mind I hoped that with a bit of encouragement he'd get through the dip. We hit the trail again on our penultimate climb, 700m to Catogne, the sun was setting on another day. I said "we've come this far lets stick together we can reasses at the next checkpoint ". While his pace had slowed Bart was still moving well. The summit came and we descended into Vallorcine. One more climb I said we can still make sub 30. Bart didn't look convinced and said something about just getting there. After Vallorine and a few more words of encouragement our final climb came into view, the route ahead of us traced on the hillside by the flicker of head torches.
We passed a group of enthusiastic American supporters at the side of the road just before we started the climb in earnest. As we started to climb Bart suddenly said "OK let's do this". He took the lead and we climbed steadily giving what we had left in our legs. We climbed up towards Tete aux Vents, up, up up we went,  then as we got about 3/4 way up it was my turn to feel the pain. The energy slowly drained from my legs, soon Bart was out of sight. I walked, jogged, shuffled on as best as I could but the ground was very bouldery slowing my progress more. As I neared the summit there was no sign of Bart and I thought , the bugger has left me, but sure enough a minute or so later he was there shouting words of encouragement to me this time. He said I needed to run faster. I frustratedly replied saying I couldn't go any faster. I was so tired that on the rocky terrain any time I tried to run faster I was tripping and stumbling. The last thing I wanted to do was fall and injure myself at this stage. I knew I needed fuel so I took a gel and kept going trying to keep Bart in sight. Slowly the carbs kicked in and I began to be able to keep a better pace, the lights of La Flegere the final checkpoint came into view.
We came into the checkpoint and after a quick drink we quickly asked how far to Chamonix. 7KM came the response. With 800m of descent and 48mins to go sub 30hrs seemed within the realms of possibility. We ran down the steep ski slope as fast as our quads would let us. Could we do it? Then as we hit the dark single track trails I realised my head torch was dying and it was slowing me down. I made the decision to change batteries. It was a good call, soon we were hammering along the rooty trail towards Chamonix, tick, tick, tick!! The trail turned to landrover track, we ran faster again, but the trail started to contour. We could see the lights far below us and we still had a lot of descent to go. I hoped for a nice steep switchback to give us a rapid descent, but it didn't come, we kept pushing but as time passed I began to realise that we were probably just too far off the finish to make sub 30. At the pace we were going I was worried that at the end of such a long race I'd end up  flaking out on the finish line. If I'd been on for  a podium finish this would have been well worth it, but I was way off that and I was keen to just enjoy the rush of running into Chamonix at the end of such an epic race. I suggested we back off  the pace. As we reached the outskirts of town we once again checked how far just in case. 1K to go, 3mins left! Just out off reach. We continued into town to the cheering crowds. I turned the corned to see Dawn and Gavin. A rather excited Dawn gave me a Saltire and we lifted our pace for the finish line. For an individual race, crossing the line with Bart was like being part of a team, it was a great feeling to reach the finish line together.
Bart and I heading to the finish line.
I hugged Bart we each thanked each other for the help along the way. Dawn was there too, she told me "wave to your Mum" I thought for  moment she was there too and felt a bit emotional, but Dawn explained that she was watching on the web cam. Great to have support from back home!
Starting the race I knew there was a very real possibility that I may not finish, that was part of the appeal- a real challenge comes with no guarantee of completion. Indeed of the 2300 runners about 900 did not finish, so while I could have been disappointed that I missed the sub 30hr mark or that I was just outside the top 100 my overwhelming feeling was one of excitement and satisfaction.
After a flurry of excitedly regaling may tales of the race to a few friends the adrenaline began to wear off. While I wanted to stay and see some others finish bed beckoned. Dawn took me home, and did her best to make me eat something as I did my best impression of a nodding dog. I got to bed about 1am and woke about 7am, excitedly I checked the time and Live Trail to see if I could catch Caroline come over the finish line, but she was already home and dry having finished in 34:50.
Knowing that I took my time, had some breakfast and even managed a wee bit of yoga before heading back to the finish line to see some of the other Scottish contingent finishing. It was incredible to see these guys coming in 40hrs + after starting.
The Scottish Contingent




Monday, 18 May 2015

Ultra Trail de les Fonts

Towards the end of any running season my mind inevitably begins to ponder what next. 2014 was no exception. With the hope of getting an entry for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and getting picked for the World Ultra trail Champs, I knew I'd need to get some serious climb in my legs to be fit for these races. The UTMB has 10, 000m of climb and the trail champs has 5,800m. With this in mind I was keen to find an early season race with some decent climb. Due to the weather ultra races with large amounts of ascent in the UK tend to take place in the warmer summer months so I began to look abroad for something to catch my eye. After a quick search in the list of UTMB qualifying races I found the Ultra Trail de les Fonts  (UTLF) The race actually consists of three stages, but you can enter each stage individually. I felt I wanted to keep my training more specific to my goals later in the season which were all single stage so I opted for day two 73k with 4,500m of climb.
By the time the race came around I had found out that sadly I had missed out on selection for the World Ultra Trail champs  but I had been successful in my UTMB application, so the UTLF would be a great chance to start the season with some climb.
I had a few reservations before heading out to this race. My main concerns being based around the fact that although the race has been running for 4 years the vast majority of the field are Spanish or Catalan so the website at that time  wasn't even translated into English (it is now). I have a few more words in my Spanish vocab than "dos cerveza por favor" but I suspected that  a race briefing in another language may be a bit beyond me and saying " I'm running an ultra and have lost the trail can you point me in the right direction" in Spanish may also exceed my basic vernacular. I was also heading out on my own so support crew on hand to keep tabs on  me on route or post race. Having said that these aspects made the whole thing a bit more of an adventure,  I couldn't wait.
In the end, last minute my cousin who was on holiday in the south of Spain at the time decided to come up to support me, which made me look forward to the weekend even more.
Xerta
The race starts in a small town called Xerta about 2 hours south of Barcelona. I arrived late afternoon on the Friday and shortly after met Jon (my cousin). One purpose of his trip was to do some filming of the area and the race so we went off exploring and checked out some of the stunning local scenery around the course.
As night fell we headed back to race HQ to register and get some food. As we arrived the runners doing the first stage were preparing to head off. It was time to see how my Spanish was going to hold up. I went to the registration desk and in my best Spanish said my name and that I wanted to register. In response Raquel one of the organisers who I'd emailed prior to the race shouted over "are you Matt?"  She introduced me to Karim the race director and between the two of them they answered all the questions I had about the race. Their enthusiasm and helpfulness was just a taste of the weekend to come.
We set up our tents grabbed some food and tried to get some sleep. Not easy when you are camping 20m from the race finish and the finishers of stage one were coming in until well after midnight.
At 5am the next morning it seemed strange putting suncream on in the dark and the temperature only a few degrees.
The start, game time!
After the usual pre race rituals the race started at 6am. Not long before the race I had invested in a new head torch and it was soon put to good use. Within minutes we went from tarmac to land rover track to technical single track. The extra light was invaluable on the rocky trail. With a few hundred other runners in hot pursuit I followed the leaders up and onto the side of an irrigation channel. Soon we were leap frogging from wall to wall trying to avoid trees, rocks and loose ground. All a bit disconcerting when the wall was only 12inches wide and frequent gorges meant a hefty drop if you missed a step. I found myself wondering what I had got myself into if this was the first few miles!
Lots of fun in the dark!

 As we approached the first check point in Pauls the sun was coming up and it was nice be able to relax a bit and not focus quite so hard on the terrain underfoot. Coming into the check point a few of the volunteers I had met the night before shouted my name, as always little thing like this lift your spirits. They must also have told a local ex pat living in the area I was running as he came up to me at the check point to offer his help. I left the check point feeling good and began the first for  four big climbs during the race, 700m in about 5k. Before the race I had been a bit concerned about navigating my way around the 73k course, but as time went on it was clear the team had  done an excellent job at marking the course with red and white tape popping up at reassuringly regular intervals. At the top of the first climb I was again lifted by the sight of Jon who had manged to hitch a lift up the mountain with some of the marshals.
Heading off for  a nice 500m of step decent we headed for the village of Prat le Compt.
Unlike other races I have done this race was really making the best of the single track trail in the area and time on road/land rover track was very minimal. Having said that as we left Prat Le Compt we headed out along a land rover track taking us through some local orchards. I think they were apricots and being March the trees were just coming into bloom and the sight and smell of the vast fields of blossom was unforgettable.
View from Tossal El Grillo
The next climb was again about 600m in about 5k, hitting the climb I decided to try out the new hiking poles I had bought before the race. In the UK poles are generally not allowed in races, but on the continent a lot of runners use them especially in longer races. I wanted to give them a go to see if I might use them at the UTMB. On the climb they undoubtedly helped give a little more drive and in my mind physiologically they make sense as you are in a more upright position allowing better lung expansion than bending forwards which is typical on steep ascents. There was a few areas where I needed to scramble and they did get in the way at these points. Strapping them to my back pack on the go took a bit of practise but overall I was glad to have them. At the summit of the next climb Tossal El Grillo,

That's me in the orange on Tossal El Grillo
      
the views were stunning. The trail emerged onto a ridge with a panoramic view over the area awesome enough to distract me from the fact I had just put my hand in a spiky beast of a cactus.
Once again Jon had been kindly ferried to the next checkpoint. A quick hello, a smile for the camera and a top up of fluid and then another 500m descent awaited.
As I descended 40k into the race I began to feel a bit hungry, the gels and bars weren't quite cutting it. I was looking forward to the next check point. When I arrived they had sandwiches with cheese and cured ham. I inhaled one, it tasted like the best sandwich I had ever eaten. Knowing I had another big climb to come and the pace wouldn't be too fast I risked another. I knew from my experience at Tranvulcania last year that it was worth spending a minute or two extra at the check point to make sure I didn't run out of energy later. Fuelled up I headed to the third big climb of the day up to the highest point of the course, yet another 600m of climb within 5k. Once at the top the legs didn't have much respite before the steep descent to Alfara. The trail was beautiful, rocky technical single track and normally I would love this sort of terrain, but by this stage I've got to admit I would have loved a gentle grassy slope. On leaving Alfara I was beginning to felt pretty wrecked, it was getting very hot and I had flash backs to my DNF at Transvulcania. I briefly worried I might not make the end, but I cast this thought quickly from my head.
Getting hot.
There was only one last 500m climb to go, I just had to keep moving forward. I tried to get into a rhythm with the poles, clickity click I headed for Coll de Pauls. When I reached the top all that stood between the summit and the finish line was 10k, one final aid station and 800m of descent. I was on the home straight and pushed on. Coming into the final check point I was given another lift as Jon had once again managed to magic his way up the hill. Just under 400m of descent to go. The end was in sight shortly after the check point. I headed down the track and soon come to some tarmac. I thought that was it, a road to take me to the finish but no sooner had I hit it I was off it again. It truly was a proper trail race.

I eventually crossed the finish line in 9h17 in 17th position. The race was won by Joan Salamana Maresma in 7h44.
The finish
After a quick freshen up we tried to get something to eat, but feeling quite nauseous I pretty much gave up after pushing some pasta around my plate for half and hour keeping a bin in close proximity just in case. Hot chocolate seemed to be the only think I could stomach. A bit later after a lie down I managed to eat a bit more and Jon and I celebrated with a whole beer each, watched some of the other finishers before I crawled back to my tent for the night.
I went out to this race with  no real expectations as to how I'd perform. My main goals were to explore another part of the world I had not been to ,  have a bit of  an adventure and get an early season race under my belt with lots of climb. As it turned out this was all realised and much more. The race was amazing. The course was tough, had incredible scenery, fantastic check points and was flawlessly marked. The race team were fantastic to both Jon and I throughout right from the race director to the kitchen staff. I spoke to Karim (Race Director) after the race and asked him what his plans were for the race. It has been running for 5 years now and this year had sold out in a matter of days. I asked were his plans to grow the race more. In response he said "no 300 is the limit so that I can maintain the quality for all the runners". It's a great attitude to have and I for one couldn't recommend the race highly enough.
 Over and about the race itself I also got to spend some quality time with Jon my cousin and share with him some of what I love about this sport. It again emphasised how lucky I am to have family and friends who support  me and take an interest in what I do. It makes all the difference!!



Courtesy of Beetproductions




Courtesy of Beetproductions.
Kit:  Helly Hansen Terrak Trail Shoe
         Helly Hansen Pace Short
         Helly Hansen Pace SS T

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Could it be a hat trick?



In 2013 I had surpassed my own expectations and had the honour to represent Great Britain at the IAU World Ultra Trail Championships in Llanrwst in Wales. The trail champs are only held every two years so the next instalment is due to take place on the 31st May 2015. They will take place in Annecy in France.  http://www.worldtrail2015.com/I am realistic and know that there may  not be too many more years that I can push my body to perform at the level I have been over the last few years and that making the team again would be a big ask, but I was really keen to give it a go. Another reason that I was keen to make the team was the fact that while I have now been luck enough to represent Scotland twice and Great Britain once all three races have been in Wales. While I am very fond of Wales it would have been nice to have the opportunity to race abroad as part of the GB team.
The World Champs in 2013  was a weekend that I will never forget and the achievement in my running career to date that I am most proud. With this in mind I had decided that I would find out what the selection race for the Worlds Champs would be and spend the later few months of 2014 preparing for this race, giving it my 100% focus.
Unfortunately, I soon found out that there a good chance there may not be a selection race due to the Worlds being earlier in the season than in previous years. Selection would be more on current form as demonstrated by a CV submitted by the end of the year. This was not ideal!
While my 2014 season had been reasonable it had not been outstanding and I hadn't done any ultras since the West Highland Way in June. In reaction to this news I hesitantly looked at the race calendar to see if I could find any races that I could feasibly enter to show current form. This wasn't easy due to the time of year and my lack of holidays. I ideally I would have like a technical race as close the world champs distance as possible but it just wasn't going to happen. As it happened I entered and raced Jedurgh 3 Peaks, winning the race and setting a new course record by about 20 minutes. I was happy with the result but couldn't help thinking it was too little too late.
I send in my CV for consideration and waited. 
Early in January found out I had made the ballot for the UTMB, soon after the guys at Helly Hansen got in touch offering to renew my contract, 2015 was shaping up to be a fantastic year. All I needed was selection to make it a hat trick...... Sadly it wasn't to be. On the 19th January I got an email informing me that I hadn't made the team. I was gutted! I knew there was only a small chance that I would make the team, so I guess I wasn't too surprised but I was hugely disappointment. For the first time ever I began to question my motivation to keep pushing myself and making the sacrifices I make. Is it all worth it? What more can I achieve now? Have I peaked? These questions were all going round and round in my head. I've got to admit I was pretty low for  a few days and struggled to keep training. However, slowly but surely I began to get my head together again. Ultimately, I am very lucky to have had the opportunities that I have had and being able to run full stop is a privilege that many people never get to experience. Time to move on.



Saturday, 8 November 2014

Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra

The Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra wasn't in my fixed race plan for 2014 but I had always intended on finding another race later in the season and after considering a few options I settled on the Jedburgh race.
The day before the race I left work to the words "you are a typical runner".  I guess I shouldn't have expected much asking for  the opinion on whether my colleague thought it would be a good idea  for me to race 38 miles with a cold. As most of you know it is pretty common to feel like you are getting a cold in the week before a race (affectionately -taperitis! i.e. any weird transient feelings of unwell you get when you are hypersensitive before a race). Anyway this was a bit more than that I had been feeling pretty rubbish all week and on Thursday after feeling a bit better on Wednesday I felt the worst I had been. I really wasn't sure I was going to race. In the end I decided to pack the car and see how I felt Friday lunch time. While I had run and even raced some shorter races with a cold I had been fortunate never to have had a cold before an ultra before so I really wasn't sure if it was a wise idea.
In the end I didn't feel as bad as I had on Thursdays on the Friday so I took a few deep breaths to check I wasn't feeling it in my chest and decided to head east to Jedburgh. Driving down I felt excited, there is something very liberating about driving off somewhere new with your tent packed and an adventure planned for the next day. When I arrived I popped into the leisure centre to say hi to Angela and Noanie, the race directors and the team. I made a token effort to help before grabbing some pub grub and an early night.
Thanks for the photo Steven Somerville!
Despite a very windy night I slept remarkably well and we were definitely reaping the benefits of being on the east coast as the weather for the start was nice and dry. Having only been to Jedburgh once before the only knowledge of the course I had was from looking at maps and reading the chat on the race forum. I often like it that way as it means the whole route is new and the new sights add to the experience, but I had heard that in previous years a number of runners had taken wrong turns so that was playing on my mind.
The course it's self is a 38mile lolly pop type route with about 1100m of ascent primarily on trails throughout the stunning countryside of the Scottish borders, the climax of which includes running up the Eildon 3 Peaks. Before the race it was nice to catch up with a few familiar faces including a number of the guys/girls that I had been out at Transvulcania with earlier in the year.
The race started at 8am and as ever there were a few keen to push the pace from the start, one of them being the Neil MacNicol who had won the race the year before. If you have read any of my previous reports you'll know I'm not keen on going eye balls out from  the gun. My ageing body needs a few miles in the tank to warm up. I was also feeling a bit concerned about what impact the cold would have on my running. I hung back a little and Neil took the lead, shortly after Hugh McInnes another runner who had ran well in previous years at the race came along side. We chatted briefly but he soon decided that he wanted to push on (or got bored with my chat) and took off in pursuit of Neil. As the first few miles went in my breathing felt hard work and due to the autumn winds a thick covering of leaves made following the trails challenging at times. As I lost sight of Neil and Hugh I made a wrong turn following the river instead of turning left. Thankfully I realised within 10-20 meters so corrected myself very quickly, but it did emphasis the need to keep up my concentration. I'm not sure quite how far in  as my Garmin didn't start at the start of the race but I guess 4-5 miles in I began to try and focus on relaxing and let my breathing settle,  as I did I caught up with Neil and Hugh. I felt good and weighed up my options. Do I A: be cautious and stick with them to help with any navigational issues and not push too hard in case my cold played havoc later in the race or B: push on and run to feel and hope I don't get lost. I chose the later.

As we reached the first check point at Maxton (10M) Neil and I were neck and neck, Hugh was a little behind.  I had opted not to leave a drop back as I feel by carrying a bit food and drink you can save yourself a bit of time by not stopping. Having said that I was not forgetting the lessons I had learnt in Transvulcania. It proved to be a good decision as Neil stopped and I was able to run on through. The next section of the race took us along a great riverside trail along the River Tweed.
Up and down plenty of steps we went and I was quickly rejoined by Neil, sadly he wasn't ready to give up yet.

As we approached the Eildons I knew that this was going to be a critical point in the race with most of the race ascent happening in a few short miles. As we hit the steep climb up the first hill Neil was close behind. I did my best to run the whole way but not sure you could really call it running. I managed to keep the lead, up the second hill and I tried to quickly take in the view before starting the steep descent. This was my favourite part of the race. It was a steep path straight off the hill covered on grass and lose gravel. Great fun!!


Coming off the last hill I glanced behind me an saw that I had opened up a bit of a gap, but there was still a long way to go. As we headed back I bumped into a few runners still on their way out and one nearly joined me thinking she had taken a wrong turn and was going the wrong way. By now I was on my own and concentrating hard to  make sure I didn't take any wrong turns. Despite all the twists and turns the guys had done a fantastic job at marking the course and although I did have a few occasions where I was running with that horrible feeling of being unsure I was on the right path thankfully the red and white tape kept appearing. At about 28 miles I began to feel a bit tired and the numerous stiles and gates we had to cross became increasingly unwelcome. I hadn't seen Neil for a while but he easily could have been near by and taking advantage of my tiring legs. Although the later stages of the race are retracing your steps the variation in terrain and number of twists and turns meant I had no chance to get bored. As the day progressed we were lucky to continue to enjoy a beautiful dry day, but the strong winds took their turn to help and hinder us throughout. In the last few miles I felt as if my hamstring was on the border of wanting to cramp. I had visions of needing to walk and things all going wrong. Thankfully, it held up despite the brutal head wind that made the last mile back into Jedburgh drag big time. Crossing the finish line in 5:01 I was delighted to find out I had broken the course record by over 20 minutes. It turns out you do need to listen to your body.....but not be afraid to question what it tells you. Thankfully on this occasion it was worth taking the gamble but like anything in running there are few hard and fast rules another friend ran the race with a cold and had a very different experience.
It was a great way to finish my season and I would highly recommend the race. Thanks again to all the team who worked so hard to put the race together.

Results:

Matt Williamson 05:01:48

Joanne Thom 06:17:24





Neil MacNicol 05:12:25

Elaine Omand 06:23:57





Duncan Oakes 05:23:29
Victoria Reid 06:34:17






Kit:  Helly Hansen Terrak Trail Shoe
         Helly Hansen Pace Short
         Helly Hansen Dry Elite Long Sleeve
         Helly Hansen Pace 1/2 Zip Lifa Flow Short Sleeve






Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Helly Hansen Beauty and the Beast



I purposefully hadn’t entered any races in the couple of months after the West Highland Way (WHW) race because I tend to find that when I step up my racing distance it takes longer to recover and the odd niggle/injury isn’t uncommon. This proved to be a wise decision, as true to form after the WHW I was decommissioned for 3.5 weeks due to tendonopathy on the front of my shin (tibialis anterior: for those who care). I had considered doing the Tour of Skiddaw Race at the end of August if I recovered well, but after the time out I decided to give it a miss and focus on my next target.
The Helly Hansen Beauty and the Beast isn’t an ultra it is a six lap trail marathon with 1400m of ascent, but it was my first opportunity take part in the race since becoming a Helly Hansen ambassador at the start of the year.
When training for the WHW my speed sessions had begun to suffer and eventually all but went by the way side so I knew I needed to get my finger out and do some speed work before the race. Once back training that went pretty well for 4 weeks but come the start of September I was out in the Alps for 2 weeks. The first week Dawn and I walked From Chamonix to Meillerie along the GR5, the second week we stayed in Meillerie and did some walks, runs and a bit of sailing from there. Some longs days out but not much to help the lack of speed in my legs, so my preparation wasn't perfect .

The day prior to the race I went down to west Wycome Park, the venue for the race, to meet some  of the other UK Helly Hansen ambassadors and do some filming to profile some of their new clothing and footwear range.  
West Wycome Park is a National Trust Property, so naturally in a beautiful setting (hence ‘The Beauty’), the guys from HH had done a great job already of setting out the race village ( space hoppers and welly wangying for the kids to boot) and the guys from Trail Plus added “The Beast” i.e. the course,  billed as the Toughest Multi Lap Trail marathon in the UK.

My fellow ambassadors for the day were Jules Roberts, another Ultra runner and Inge Solheim an expedition leader/adventurer who amongst other things lead the Walking with The Wounded Team to the North and South Pole. They were both doing the half marathon. I don’t know about them but I felt a bit nervous about the race, feeling that there was a certain amount of expectation on me to have a good. That remained to be seen by as always I would give 100%!.
On the morning of the race the weather was overcast but warm and slightly humid. All the runners including the marathon, half marathon and relay teams started as a mass start which made pacing the more difficult as it took me a while to work out who was in which race. I wanted to take it steady to start with, get a better feel for the course over the first lap and take it from there. One benefit of a lapped course is the fact you know what is coming after the first lap without the need to recce the whole course.
The lap starts with a deceptively small looking hill, which in reality climbs for longer than you would think sucking the energy out of your legs with every stride. I got to the top not far behind the leaders with no idea what race they were doing, once we got there it was a quick 180 degree turn before heading back down toward the start and the beginning of the next climb.
The pattern of up one hill and down the other side was a pattern that was repeated frequently throughout the 4.4M course with little cahnce to settle into a steady pace. One way of describing it would be a long cross country course, the difference being that they normally last 4-6 miles not 26! Oh and they don’t normally take you through a river six times!
I felt pretty good through the first 3 laps and by that stage I had worked out who my competition was. I was in 3rd place but within sight of the two leaders. I hoped that my endurance would stand me in good stead for the second half of the race. Come the fourth lap of the course I began to feel something in my legs that I hadn’t felt for a long time in a race: lactic acid as I climbed the steepest hill of the course. In an ultra, it would be normal to walk a hill that steep to save the legs but I was determined to run on. The hard work paid off as I caught Scott Forbes who was in 2nd place.  The same hill on lap five was a real chore and I could feel the impact racing at a faster pace was having on my legs. I push on as hard as I could but in the end Scott was too strong passing me on the final lap and finishing 25 seconds ahead. Majell Backhausen who won the race had stormed the second half of the race and won comfortable in 3:10. I finished in 3:19.
While I was disappointed not to win the race for the Helly team I guess I wasn’t too surprised. You can’t expect to perform at your best if your training is focused accordingly. Despite that with was a fantastic couple of days and great to be part of the team at Helly Hansen.

Kit:  Helly Hansen Terrac Trail Shoe
         Helly Hansen Pace Short
         Helly Hansen Pace 1/2 Zip Lifa Flow Short Sleeve