Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The CCC August 2015

Whilst this is now a year over due, I came across this report recently and thought I'd share it on here for posterity.  Just for clarity, the CCC stands for Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix which are the start, middle and end towns of this 100km race over the Italian/French Alps. 

Having been unsuccessful in the ballot the previous year I didn’t have high hopes for a place the second time around, yet low and behold, both myself and friend Chris were lucky (?) this time and before I knew it we our status had changed to “registered” on the website.  This was back in January so it seemed like such a long way off that it didn’t really need thinking about just at the moment……..
So after a trip to the Caribbean and the London marathon done and dusted it was time to turn my attention to the main event of the year.  I had already signed up to Salomon 4 Trails again with the backup plan of Transalpine in my mind had I not got into the CCC so some mountain training was perfectly timed.  Having trained for London marathon over the winter I had not done as much trail running or hills as I usually would have and after a hilly 10 mile run in Exmoor over Easter, the pain in my quads panicked me into addressing my lack of hill training so I swiftly booked up a couple of hilly marathons and ultra’s prior to 4 Trails.  It was only just about enough and after a testing last day in the Alps I began to realise the enormity of what I had signed up for.  Andy kept assuring me that this would be excellent prep for the CCC but still not being sure I hit the hills again and spent about 3 weekends in a row heading to the Peak District and other hilly areas of the UK to get some miles in.
With all the training I could do done, we (myself, Andy, Chris and his fiancé Beth) arrived in Chamonix the day before the race, registered, clapped in some TDS runners finishing their 120km effort and fuelled ourselves for the next day.  Race morning rolled around and after a trip through the most expensive and rather underwhelming tunnel through Mont Blanc we arrived at the race start with 2,000+ other runners who were all queuing for the same 3 toilets.  An hour later we entered the pen and though we tried to nudge our way forward a bit, it was clear that this was not acceptable to most people there so gave up and waiting patiently for our wave to start at 09.10.  During this time we chatted about the food we were carrying (each probably thinking “ah, wish I’d thought of that”), how hot it was going to get (Chris is ginger and doesn’t cope well in temperatures over  10 degrees) and what a long day it was going to be.  I think we thought that we might make it in 20-22 hours but neither of us had any real hope of anything other than surviving to the end.  The thing that struck me most in the wait for the start was how many people there were.  The race limit was 1,900 according to the website so they set us off in 3 waves, 10 mins apart to ease congestion.  Well, this didn’t work.  We set off through the streets at a nice relaxed pace and then hit the start of the climb which was a tarmac road and pretty wide.  Though it wasn’t long before we reached the single track and this is where the queuing started.  At first it was fine as we were out for a long time so tempering the first climb was a sensible approach.  However I hadn’t envisaged standing completely stationary for minutes at a time for pretty much all of the first climb (that took 3 hours).  Sure, it was great to take in the scenery and appreciate where we were and what we were doing but I was too busy wondering why on earth they had chosen a course that is so inadequate for this amount of runners.  People were clearly getting impatient and overtaking on the switchback corners only to be held up directly in front of you having made approximate 24 inches for their efforts.  None of us were standing there for the fun of it and I’m sure everyone on the mountain would have liked to have been moving and I can’t help but think these ‘queue jumpers’ were part of the congestion problem (think motorways when you lose a lane…..).   So we crept upwards and upwards and arrived finally at the top of the first climb to get ‘swiped’ with the electronic thingy that sends text messages to our eagerly awaiting followers.  (Tete de la Tronche – 3.01, 1556 position.)
The top section was undulating at first and then dropped down to our first water station at Refuge Bertone 5km and 35 mins later having made up a few places (1301 position).  I was expecting just drinks here but was pleasantly surprised to find cut up bars and tuck biscuits as well as water, iso drink and coke.  We didn’t hang around as it was still ridiculously busy so we set off along the ridge to our next stop at Refuge Bonatti.  A fairly uneventful hour that I can barely recall before we arrived for some more refreshments with just 5km until our first food check point in Arnuva, which was all downhill.  We were doing well on the down hills and once people moved out of our way we were moving well.  We took a bit of time here to eat some proper food (they had noodle soup, bread, meat, cheese etc) as we knew we had a beast of a climb waiting for us on the other side of the tent.  We set off still in good spirits and agreed we would take our time and be sensible on this climb to try and avoid Chris being struck down with sun stroke (it had happened on his last two trips to Snowdon, I kid you not) and broke this climb with some stream water hat dipping and a food stop (we found that stopping and letting ourselves eat whilst resting worked better for us that trying to eat on the fly).  It was hot and we’d been out for 6+ hours by this point and people all around were clearly suffering.  Bodies strewn all over the sides of the path resting and one man on his hands and knees vomiting over the side.  The sun was slowly claiming one victim after another and we knew that keeping it slow and steady was key for us.  We reached the top and after a quick swig of water we started the section we’d been looking forward to – the 20km descent down to la Fouly.   We started well and were passing hoards of people and were having a great time.  However after about 20 mins Chris starts to feel the first twinges of cramp and stops to stretch.  Cramp has finished  races before so we wanted to keep it at bay and were prepared to do whatever it took to make sure this happened so intermittent stretching and walking seemed to be doing the trick.  I suggested at one point that maybe because he was descending slower than usual (mainly due to the still huge number of people on the track) and the braking action could have been the cause so he opened up his stride and was off, and that oddly seemed to help.  We were back to normal after a 20 min worrying spell and were heading for La Fouly with a spring in our steps.  But that didn’t last long as the sun had finally claimed yet another victim and Chris started to suffer badly from what we assumed was sun stroke.   We walked the last 2km into the checkpoint with him the colour of an uncooked prawn and I began to doubt whether he would be able to get going again.  The tent was stiflingly hot and Chris sat with his head in his arms for a good 20 mins before he could face eating anything.  He finally felt OK enough to get some bread down, took some food for the journey and we set off again.  I’ll admit to thinking at this point that if he pulled out then I would do the honourable thing and pull out as well.  I was feeling it now – we’d been going 9 hours and we’d only done a marathon, we weren’t even half way.  Andy wasn’t interested in these negative thoughts and sent us on our way and within a few minutes Chris was back on form again, in fact probably even better than before his dip. I’ve never seem someone rally so annoyingly well! 
It was 14km to Champex, the “halfway” point of the race, the place where you get a hot meal and your supporters are allowed in to see/help you.  It was a descent from La Fouly then a “small” climb into Champex.  I really can’t recall much about this section though I think this is where we passed through some villages where the locals had set up unofficial aid stations of water, tea, coffee etc which was so gratefully received.  I was beginning to feel quite sick and everything I ate was a struggle to get down which each mouthful  ending with a retch.  Andy and Beth met us outside a bar with a Sprite and an OJ and lemonade which was what I’d been craving for hours but now just didn’t feel like I had the space to fit more liquid in.  This section was fairly runnable with some lovely forest sections and then we hit the climb.  Not as small as the map would have you believe and this was a dark place for me.  I seriously thought about stopping at Champex and decided that 9 hours running is more than enough.  I honestly couldn’t see how I could do another 9 hours in the dark feeling like this. We (well Chris) started chatting to a Namibian lady who was saying how lucky we are to be here etc etc but all I thought was that I didn’t feel that lucky at that moment and I was envious of anyone who wasn’t out there slogging up yet another climb.  The light was fading and it seems ludicrous that we hadn’t finished yet as I’ve never raced into the night before.  We were all too lazy to get our head torches out and stuck close by the one man in our group who had and had just enough light to make it to the checkpoint. 
In the tent a mini tantrum ensued.  I wasn’t going to eat because I wasn’t going back out.  I wasn’t going to have a coffee because I wasn’t going back out.  I wasnt going to have a caffeine pill because I wasn’t going back out.  So I sat there and managed 4 pieces of penne pasta, a couple of cups of coke and a good old whinge.  Andy wasn’t having any of it and didn’t even entertain me not going back out so told me to get a grip, eat something and get going.  Chris was a little kinder with some more manageable goals to aim at.  It was 17km to the next major checkpoint which would be hard going, then it was just 11km – checkpoint -  11km -water station – 8km – finish.  Though it sounds fairly manageable, we were under no illusions that it was going to be easy.  But back out we went, into the dark to takle the next 17km which was the rest of the climb we were on, a gentle descent then a steeper climb and a drop into Trient, our next aid station. 

Running in the dark with a head torch was a different experience and bought a little excitement to the event.  I’d not done any running in the dark so this was a bit novel for me.  I occupied myself playing with the various settings on my head torch, full beam for running, dim for climbing.  We were still able to run at a decent pace which was annoying in a way as I’d thought my legs would give up before the rest of my body (clearly not my mind though!) and I found it encouraging and disappointing in equal measure that I still felt so good when running. 
We stopped for some food just before the climb kicked up and got stuck in.  What I remember most vividly about the climbs in the night section is the amount of spiders that came out at night!  There were loads of them, big, long legged things that were going about their business, probably wondering why 2,000 people were tramping over their homes!  We broke half way up for Chris to attend to some foot admin.  As I was sitting, I was aware that I was probably sitting on a spiders house and the fact that I didn’t bother to moved went to show how tired I must have been.  When we started the climb the field was fairly spread out but suddenly, out of nowhere came about 60 people in a long conga line just as we were ready to set off again. We were suddenly back to queuing again after 15 hours of racing and duly joined the human snake to the top.  It flattened out for a while and as the man in front’s reflective section on his shoes sent me into a hypnotic state, I called to Chris who was a few people ahead that I needed to eat before we descended (descending is more tiring for me that climbing as I have to concentrate so hard) to which he readily agreed.  We sat off the path, turned off our head torches and enjoyed a Lion bar in the moonlight under the stars.  It was stunning up there and the moon was more or less full but we couldn’t really enjoy it for long as we needed to get down off the mountain to our next checkpoint.  We’d lost the group during our moonlight picnic but soon came upon and passed them on our way down as most people were reduced to walking down hills.  We were still moving well and though rocky and covered in tree routes on large sections I amazingly didn’t fall over once.  The lights of Trient were getting closer and we arrived into the checkpoint to be greeted by Andy and Beth.  They were getting good at knowing what we wanted/needed and whilst Beth attended to the unenviable task of helping Chris sort his feet out properly, Andy was busy sneaking sachets of sugar into all my food.  I was feeling more like eating now and being aware of how little I’d eaten at Champex and the fact I’d had not eat much in the last 3 hours I got to work.  A bowl of noodle soup, a small cheese and salami sandwich, a couple of cokes (with extra sugar), a coffee (with extra sugar) and a porridge pot (golden syrup with extra sugar).  I was really pleased with myself but just as I was finishing the porridge the retches that I thought were innocuous turned out to be a bit more sinister as I threw everything back up into a bin bag tapped to the end of the table.  In front of the other runners trying to eat their food.  Delightful.  Now I was convinced I would be allowed to stop but nope, apparently I would still have absorbed the calories from what I’d just eaten and would have more than enough to get me to the next check point.  I was not convinced but left the tent (and giant sick bag) to another 11km of up then down to reach Vallorcine, our last major checkpoint.  

On our way up the climb we saw lots of head torches coming back the other way and overheard a few of them say they were done and heading back to Trient.  I was slightly envious but also felt a slight sense of triumph that we were still going.  We were uber conservative on this climb as I was nervous that I was going to be sick every time I ate so this was done carefully and slowly sitting on a rock at the side of the climb.  I knew that this would take roughly the same time to summit as the last one so just got into it.  Chris and I didn’t talk much on this section so when we neared the top and he stated chatting to an English woman I was pleased he had someone new to talk to.  Again I called for a break before the descent as I was suffering big time.  The woman stopped with us and seemed surprised that we were going to sit down but she soon joined us on the grass!  We trotted off gently down the descent and we lost her, then I lost Chris as I stopped to take my jacket off.  I hoped he’d gone on ahead and wasn’t waiting for me on the side of the mountain as it was cold when you were stationary.  It turned out he hadn’t and had arrived at Vallorcine about 5 mins ahead of me and was getting into his checkpoint ritual.  I was unable to eat again and though I sent Andy off to get me all sorts I didn’t touch any of them. 

He was keen to get us out of there as soon as possible as in retrospect we did waste an awful lot of time in checkpoints.  Not that it mattered about time at all but we probably were putting off getting back out onto the trails so this kick up the bottom was probably what we needed.  So with no real food inside me we bid farewell to Andy and Beth who said “see you at the finish!” as we headed out.  We had 19km to go, 11km to a checkpoint (of course over a hill) then 8km to the finish.  I thought that of the 19km we had to do 14 of them would be down hill and 5km up didn’t seem too bad.  How wrong I was.  Chris and I started off in good spirits, telling ourselves that the sun would be up in an hour or so and that would give us a lift, as would getting to the top of the next climb, as this would be our last of the race.  As we wandered along we looked to our right and saw what I thought were stars, but turned out to be a line of head torches miles above us snaking up into the sky.  Wow that looked like it would take a while!  A quick last gel and we were off climbing skyward to join our fellow competitors.  I don’t know whether it was because we were so tired, sleep deprived and lacking in energy but this climb seemed the worst of them all.  Steep, rocky and wooden steps in places and at least 3 false summits.  Chris seemed pretty angry and we spent a while discussing why the organisers thought this would be a good idea so late in the race, only to “summit” to find it still going up!  We even started descending at one point congratulating ourselves on reaching the top only to be faced with more of the climb.  It was soul destroying and probably one of the darkest patches of the race for both of us.  Progress was so slow that Chris reckoned a slug over took us on that last ascent.  I think he may have been right.  Even though the sun was up now our spirits were not.

We did eventually reach the top and started to descend only to be stuck behind a large group of people who were probably moving downhill slower than my mum would walk.  Directly in front of us was a man who had decided to attach a small bell to his ruck sack and after 35 seconds of constant jingling Chris had had enough and took a risk to get by the group. I wasn’t as confident in my ability at that point so had to stay behind them until I found a section to pass them.   Jingle bells behind me I soon caught up with Chris on the undulating path and we were soon in the final checkpoint (they’d hilariously put this up a hill as well so you can imagine how we felt about that!).  2 cups of coke later we were on the final 8km descent into Chamonix.  The first section was painfully steep but soon gave way to beautiful, runnable woody trails and people were coming up the other way, either out for a run or hiking up to find their runner but every single one of them was so encouraging and so enthusiastic it really made a difference.  The word I heard the most was “Congratulations”  and this is when it dawned on me that I’d done it.  I got a bit emotional when I thought about it all but forced myself to keep it in check as I still had 4 miles to go and anything could happen!  The people got denser, the support more fervent and the finish closer.  I caught back up with Chris and we chatted about the previous 24 hours.  I warned him I might cry when we crossed the line and he admitted he might too. We were soon in Chamonix and running along the river we’d walked along 2 days before to register for this ridiculous event and we allowed ourselves a moment of congratulation as we high fived our efforts of making it.  I admitted to Chris that there were lot of times during the race that I seriously didn’t think I’d make it to the end and he (surprisingly) agree he’d felt the same himself.
It felt like the whole town was out and behind us as we wound our way through the streets and I think this may be my best running experience ever, just those few moments knowing what we’d just achieved with hundreds of people seemingly sharing in your joy.  Andy and Beth were there to greet us and before we knew it we were crossing the line arms aloft, beaming.  We had run ourselves up from 1556 at the 1st timing point 10km in to 1027 by the end some 90km later.

Having had a couple of weeks to reflect on this event I have a lot of feeling about it.  First and foremost I think is pride in finishing what is without a doubt the toughest thing I’ve done to date.  Running with Chris made finishing possible, end of story.  Had I been on my own then I honestly don’t think I would have carried on.  We helped each other through our respective bad patches and I think that helped us to focus our attention away from how we were feeling at that time.  Just having someone that you’re comfortable enough with to not feel you have to speak the whole time but just knowing they’re there if you want to is a huge help, and I feel really lucky to have had that in Chris.  Plus, having someone to share it with was amazing.  You can never explain to others quite what it was like without them having gone through it as well.  

I have a memory of thinking most of the way round that I wasn’t enjoying it and even after I’d finished, the first few texts I responded to were to say how horrendous it had been.  Whilst it’s hard to recall those feelings now I am aware that they were very real at the time and I won’t ignore them on the high of finishing and looking back with rose tinted glasses.  It was hard, there was a lot of suffering and it took its toll.  And while a lot of people like these challenges to be present in an event to make getting through even more of an achievement, I personally like to enjoy the journey along the way, not simply arrive at the destination. 
The sheer volume of people really detracted from the overall experience for me.  I don’t understand why they allow so many runners to enter (the website says the limit is 1,900 though the withdrawals added to the finishers show a figure nearer 2,130) on a course that is so unsuitable for that many people.  The single track within the first 3km is congested for miles and miles and unless you have stated a fast finishing time (sub 18 hours probably) to get into the first pen and are prepared to camp at the front for 2 hours then you are almost certainly going to get held up.  I wasn’t aware that this would be necessary to get a more enjoyable race experience and nor do I think that these are lengths that one should have to go to. Either change the route or allow less people in.  As I said earlier, even at 3am 70km into the race we were still queuing on climbs. 

I don’t think I could have done much more training wise and I was pleased with how my legs felt for the whole race.  Not once did I feel I was reduced to a walk and even in the final 8km downhill to the finish we were running strong.   I was disappointed that I struggled with eating and nausea and am exploring ways that I might be able to combat that in the future. 

So overall an amazing experience, even if the things that made it amazing were truly horrific at the time.  I love exploring my limits and thought I’d found them on this race but glad that I pushed through them and came out the other side.  The question is, if this isn’t my limit, what is……..?

Friday, 20 September 2013

Transalpine 2013. This time we made it!

I wrote this a few days after returning from Transalpine 2013.  I meant to write a more details account of the race but didn't get round to it and now I can't remember much detail!  So here's the "short" version!

This time last week Andy and I were in the bowels of hell, struggling round out penultimate day of the Transalpine Run.  But as with everything, even though you think it will never end, it does and here I am a week on sitting at work writing about it. 
I will do a more detailed blog with pictures soon which I will post the link up for when its done, but for those of you that don’t have a spare couple of days to read this then here are the stats and a few thoughts about the experience.

For those that don’t know, the Goretex Transalpine Run is an 8 day event that sees you running from Germany to Italy through, no, sorry…..over the Alps.  Each stage is a different length with a total distance of 260km and a whopping 15,468m of elevation over the 8 days.  This is broken down as follows;
Day 1: 36.4km.  2083m up -  1469m down
Day 2: 24.7km.  1883m up -  2040m down
Day 3: 38.4km.  2975m up -  2431m down
Day 4: 37.1km.  2000m up -  2698m down
Day 5: 6.3km.  971m up – cable car down!
Day 6: 37.8km. 1627 up – 1369m down
Day 7: 42.6km. 2381m up – 1937 down
Day 8: 39.8km. 1897m up – 3106m down

Day 1 started well enough with our plan being to go über conservative from the off.  Its all too easy to get carried away with the energy and excitement but we stuck to our plan and finished in 5.57 and 38th /105 mixed teams. 

Day 2 was the “easy” day with only 15 miles to run but the fact that it took 5.14 to finish shows just how “easy” it wasn’t.  We were not that speedy on the climbs but my descending training had paid off and we were picking off teams on the descents which we were both hugely enjoying.  There really is nothing better than a good long descent to the finish passing people and Entschuldigung-ing as we go.  Finished 33rd / 103 today

Day 3 was billed to be tough and it was.  It had the most amount of climbing with 2 whoppers to negotiate.  We had a pretty bad day here with a major bonk for me on climb two (which was, frankly, ridiculous) and ambled in in 8.07 and  52nd place of the now 92 remaining mixed teams.

Day 4 just needed to be got through as we were then due a “rest day” on day 5.  It looked Ok on paper and I cant think of any major incidents on day 4 so I assume that we fared better than we had the day before.  A shorter day out with a run time of 6.26 and a finishers position of 45th out of 91 teams. 
*its worth mentioning that each daily placing counts towards tour overall placing for the duration of the event.  Needless to say we slipped down a few places after day three but were slowly clawing our way back!

Day 5.  The day I’d been looking forward to the most.  The rest day!  Well, almost.  All we had to do was hike/run 6.3km up a mountain as fast as we could.  The set you off in a handicapped order so the slowest first with the fastest bringing up the rear.  You can run as a team or go solo but they combine your times for the overall team time so I wanted to not be that far from Andy.  I had half wanted to take it easy and use it as recovery but as soon as I saw the bottoms of a mixed team coming into view, the competitor in me kick in and I chased them down.  We finished with a combined time of 2.03 (1.01 for Andy and 1.02 for me – I nearly caught him but male pride spurred him up the final km when he turned and saw me!) we finished 22nd today so a good day for team Tri London and we were stomping back up the overall scoreboard! 

Day 6.  After the easy day and the resting of the downhill muscles thanks to the cable car we took down the mountain, and the afternoon we spent in the local spa pools with massage jets a Jacuzzi’s galore, I felt good going into day 6.  The end was now in sight and a big psychological hurdle had been broken through with only 3 stages remaining.  It looked a relatively simple day with the first major climb at the beginning and then a couple of “humps” before descending into the next town.  Sadly, my descending legs decided to leave me here and it was an uncomfortable downhill day for me with a worrying quad pain.   We let 2 teams pass us in the final 1km and decided that was enough and made it in ahead of the next mixed team by 7 seconds!  38th team of 82 for this stage.  The legs went into the fast flowing river for a cooling off ready for the following day which was the longest stage so far.

Day 7.  A full marathon that turned out to be 45km.  this was by far my worst day, despite it being so close to the end.  The first 17km were downhill on road and whilst that might sound nice, it really isn’t.  Then after some lumps and bumps that actually turned out to be far steeper than the profile suggested, we hit the major climb of the day.  This was 9km of up, that went on and on and on with no respite that took forever.  This is also where Andy’s Achilles started playing up so an unpleasant time for us both.  The downhill was awful for me despite the quad guards and hiking poles and Andy had to run on ahead to enable him to run pain free (or at least with less pain).  A dismal 8.02 hour day which had us limping in in 51st place

Day 8 – the final day!  Another tough day of 40km (41km, actually but who’s counting?) but thankfully they’d put the climb at the beginning of the day.  after this it was pretty much downhill to the finish with a couple of “rises” along the way.  The biggest amount of descent of any stage so far in TAR history, 3,106m.  Miraculously, my descending legs came back and we flew down the first descent.  The rest it a mixture of ups and down and a rather painful fall but we made it to the end intact and still speaking in 7.17 and 43rd for the day which put is 40th team overall. 

Finishing together and un-injured is a rarity for a team in TAR and the fact that our category alone lost 27 teams over the 8 days shows this.  And not all of those that finished were un-injured either – there was more strapping and tape here than I’ve ever seen before.  I think we were lucky but also a big part of it was down to how sensible we were with training before the race and maintenance/recovery during.  High doses of protein (we took a tub of powder), BCAA, fish oil, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, ice baths, leg draining, compression and as much sleep as we could fit it.  I’m not ashamed to admit that 8.30pm was a reasonably late night for us!  But it just goes to show if you look after yourself you can have a much better time of it.

As always, a stunning event with views that pictures don’t do justice to and the best organisation I’ve ever come across.  A ridiculously tough challenge but that comes hand in hand with the pleasure of running in mountain terrain.  If you’ve never done it then I urge you to do at least 1 days running in the Alps somewhere  - it really is stunning.

A couple of pictures attached,  but it wasn’t all like that!  

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Counting Down

It’s been a funny old period since Salomon 4 Trails – I kind of have an “end of season” feeling.  I think its to do with the end of the heatwave and that a big event has been done and recovered from that I find myself looking to winter races and events for 2014.  Only when I really remind myself do I realise that actually I still have my biggest event ahead of me.  And in a matter of days no less. 

After we’d recovered sufficiently (or what we thought was sufficiently, anyhow) we headed off to Switzerland to couple up a visit to Andy’s brother, his wife and their baby with some mountain running.  The former was lovely, especially hanging out with Family Bruce at Zug lake in the 35 degree heat.  The latter was not so much fun, especially for poor Andy who was not as recovered as we’d have hoped.  We planned a 20 mile run up the Zugerbeg and Wildspitz but we hadn’t planned on it being 35 degrees.  I really enjoyed the run but Andy started to really feel it on the climb up and even after a lengthy break, coke and carrot cake up the top, the descent wasn’t much better.  But, glad we found that out so that recovery could take precedence over anything else.  He forewent the planned hill reps the following day and left me to get on with them by myself.  I loved them (hike up, run down) but got some funny looks from a few hikers that I must have passed 3 times on my rep.  they looked like they were having trouble just getting up once!  And my motivation was the massive buffet brunch planned for afterwards where I literally ate my own body weight.

Our next trip was 2 weeks later, and 2 weeks before TAR, and that was to visit our friend and 2012 Transalpine finisher Chris “Jenks” Jenkins at his family home in Shrewsbury.  The plan was to hit Snowdon on day 1 for a 20 mile loop over the mountain, then a shorter day on his local hills of Long Mynd the following day for some hill reps.  But Mother Nature plotted against us and with rain and winds of up to 60mph at the summit of Snowdon, we decided to forego the 90 min drive each way to spend 6 hours being wet and buffeted about on a ridge and stick to the nearer, lower contours of Long Mynd.  I’ll admit that I felt a bit cheated to be missing out on Snowdon and I didn’t think that the hills of Shrewsbury would cut the mustard in terms of what I wanted to get out of the weekend, which was to smash my legs in a bid to stave of the inevitable quad pain that would develop in TAR.  Turns out I was very wrong about that.  The hills there, although not as long as Snowdon, were certainly plentiful and Jenks even added in what we named Banter Hill, because he knew I wanted hilly.  After cresting this beast and bombing down the other side, I was shattered.  I had to eat a bit of humble pie and admit to the others that I had had enough hills for now and luckily they both felt the same so we agreed to cut out the last loop of the run which would have taken us down off the Mynd and back up again in a 4 mile loop.  I was relieved, though momentarily concerned at my fitness, or lack of, until it dawned on me that we all felt a bit lethargic  due to the 7 bottles of red wine we sank between 6 people the night before.  So with Andy’s headache worsening with each footstep we were certainly glad to be running through town to the car at the end of 16 miles. 
The following day Jenks and his girlfriend hiked around Long Mynd whilst Andy and I hiked up and ran down as many hills as we could in 90 minutes.  It was a lovely day a good weekend training and the DOMS in my quads for the next couple of days suggested that the hill reps had done their job. 

So now its mostly about recovery, rest and  maintenance – a few easy runs, a couple of gym sessions an maybe some hill reps this weekend, maybe not.  I know there is nothing more I can do to positively affect my race, but plenty I can do to negatively affect it so I will, as always (and secretly wish I could do all the time!) err on the side of caution and follow the less is more rule of thinking. 

So nothing to do but wait – and I’m currently looking at photos and reading race reports from previous years races and remembering how much I love the mountains and enjoying the feeling of the excitement starting to build.  (As long as I don’t spend too long looking at elevation profiles….)

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Salomon 4 Trails 2013

We booked this race as an alternative to Transalpine, as we’d done it last year (Andy’s third year) and this seemed like a more sensible amount of running, but still getting in the mountain trails that we loved about TA.  So after convincing (he may say nagging) Andy to enter, he finally agreed and I signed us up quicker than Usain Bolt.   However, after a week or so Andy admitted that this would be great training for Transalpine and it would almost be a shame not to enter…….and so without being told twice I promptly signed us up for TA as well.  Now we had our years races planned out, we could set about the task of training for them.  Some of you will know that we entered TA last year but only completed 6 of the 8 days due to insufficient training (on my part) so this year its all about training hard (and efficiently) without getting injured.  And Salomon 4 Trails was essentially a training camp for Transalpine. In the lead up to this event I felt my training had gone well, no injuries, hitting all my sessions and my last few long runs had felt pretty good.  I was ready.  

So after a surprise visit to Frankfurt to watch my sister in the Ironman (surprise to her, not us obviously, we knew where we were going) we headed daaahn saaaaf to the mountains.  The excitement started to build as we approached mountain territory and I couldn’t wait to get started.  After a very efficient registration process and a day relaxing by a lake we were good to go.  Race day dawned and breakfast was a quiet affair with only Andy and I in the breakfast room.  We headed down to the start where the square was now thick with runners, stretching, drinking coffee, applying Vaseline or all of the above at once.  The race is run by the same company as Transalpine so its exactly the same format, fill your gel bottle, get your kit checked then into the pens for the daily blast of “Highway to Hell” before the off.  This event doesn’t make you run as a pair so we had agreed to run days 1 & 4 together with the middle two days being run solo.  This is mainly because my descending is not that great and Andy always has to wait for me so it’s a nice opportunity for him to be able to run at his own pace.  And if I hadn’t agreed to this then he basically wouldn’t have let me sign us up for Transalpine……..

Day 1 Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Ehrwald
Distance – 36.4km
Ascent – 2,410
Descent – 2,113
Time – 6:38
Energy – 7/10
Leg soreness – 0/10
Nausea level – 0/10
Enjoyment – 7/10
Number of retches when taking gel – 0
Finish relief – 5/10

Day 1 was a bit of a b*tch with 6 climbs and descents over the 36km route.  Most of the days will feature  1,2 or possibly 3 climbs but this stage had us going up and down like yo-yo’s.  Some of the ups were ridiculous, tip of toes type climbing that went on and on around the corner, just when you thought it was over.  The weather was lovely, if a little hot but I’d take that over rain any day.  The first aid station was not where it was supposed to be, for reasons I still don’t know, so after 2 of the climbs and approaching middle of the day heat (we set off at 10am this morning) with only 1 bottle of water and no more gel left, things started to get a little laboured.  Thankfully the mountain villages or sometimes even just a property have these water troughs with what I hope is fresh water running into them, so we all flung ourselves on this like we’d been in the Sahara for a week and drank our fill. 
I was doing well on the downhill’s and staying with Andy and actually passing people, which was unheard of last year.  In fact, I had traffic jams of walkers behind me most of the time.  The views were lovely as we had the Zugspitze as our focal point for the whole day.  Andy’s challenge to me was to pass 10 people on the descent into town which I did with km’s to spare ;-)
We ran in together in a time of 6.38 and stuck our legs straight into the towns fountain for some recovery. 
A fairly uneventful day and to be honest I have trouble remembering details of the first stage other than it was hot, scenic and harder than I thought it would be! 


Day 2 Ehrwald – Imst
Distance – 45.3km
Ascent – 2,723
Descent – 2,940
Time – 9.15
Energy – 6/10
Leg soreness – 5/10
Nausea level – 1/10
Enjoyment – 6/10
Number of retches when taking gel – 0
Finish relief – 8/10

Day 2 has 2 big climbs and descents.  Andy and I agreed to do the first climb together, then he was going to go off on his own.  The first climb was going ok, passed the aid station with no incident and carried on up.  Then we turned a corner and were face with……The Ice Wall.  Literally, an almost sheer mountain face covered in snow.  With nothing but fresh air below you if you slipped.  Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic but it looked like it at the time.  Most people had poles so were tripping up it with a bit of purchase, but us Brits don’t bother with such aids so we just dig our toes into the snow and hoped that if you slipped, you wouldn’t go too far.  This was probably the most frightening part of any race I’ve done and I did not enjoy it one bit.  I was very glad when I reached the top and saw there was no snow on the other side, which was our descent.  I was even more pleased when I heard at dinner that night that towards the back of the field it got so slippery and treacherous that they had to pull people up by rope………
So a quick snap at the top and I wave Andy goodbye and see how long it will take him to disappear out of sight.  Turns out, not that long.  The first part of the descent is very rocky so I take my time but it soon turns into soft sandy shale so  its easy to dig your heels in and do a kind of slide/run down.  My shoes were full of stones but it was an Ok descent.  I even passed people on this too, truly amazing!  The second climb was a killer and the thing with this race is that when you think you’re at the top, you’re not.  I walked up stuck behind a girl who was taking her sweet time and now and then I’d manage to pass her but when I stopped to have a drink or a gel she would get in front again.  And behind me was a guy who was struggling more than I was who seemed to take a break when I did.  Which was fine, until he took a gel and spent the next 3 minutes retching all over the place.  This happened 3 times on this climb and I was very glad when we got to what I thought was the top so I could leave him.  But, as I said, this was not the top at all.  I knew what elevation we were going up to and I knew from my Garmin what elevation I was at and was very pleased to see we were within 12m of our max elevation.  But then we went down hill.  And then, around the corner looms another peak.  This was a theme for the rest of the race so in the end I just resigned myself to never thinking I was nearly there and always assuming there was more to do.  You certainly get value for money in this race! 
So the new top was reached and to my horror the first part of the descent jutted out on a tiny path that was hanging over the edge of the mountain with nothing but blue sky below.  And, to make it worse, the surface was hard, slippery shale.  Again, those with poles seemed to fair better than me and the big orange “dangerous section” sign the race organisers had thoughtfully put up did not make me feel that comfortable.  In fact, I must have looked very uncomfortable as they had a mountain guide in this section who asked me “alles gut??” “NEIN!” all was not good.  So he came and peeled me off the rock I was clinging to and kindly walked me round the death path to safety.  I didn’t dare look but I’m sure the views were spectacular……….I was quickly picked up by mountain guide number two who had obviously witnessed my paralysis and though he too kindly helped my on my way, I’m sure he had a good old laugh with mountain guide one after I’d gone.  I didn’t care though, I was so relived to be off that section and it genuinely took me 10 mins to feel calm again. 
But, I survived and set about the task of getting 1,500m down in 11km.  Luckily for me, a lot of this was on forest roads so I stuck my iPod in and gritted my teeth to the increasing pain.
I finished only 30 mins after Andy, it turned out he was a lot quicker on the descents but any time he had on me was negated by his frequent and lengthy rest breaks on the second climb. 
Tonight we got a massage which seemed to help, and an early night ready for day 3!

Going it alone

Beautiful views but we had to earn them!


Day 3 Imst - Landeck
Distance – 33.6km
Ascent 1,884
Descent 1,804
Time 6.15
Energy – 4/10
Leg soreness – 9/10
Nausea level – 5/10
Enjoyment – 4.5/10
Number of retches when taking gel – 0
Finish relief – 9/10
Pigs – 2

So this was the “easy” day.  20 miles, one big up, one big down.  No fuss.  It was also the hardest day to start in terms of only being half way through the event when you set off.  Again, Andy and I decided we climb the same speed so we set off together with him leaving me when we got to the top.  Another day of false summits but the climb up was actually pretty enjoyable.  It wasn’t too steep in most places so you could enjoy the scenery, which was very green and lush.  As we neared to top(s) it became more rugged and rocky and steeper but really amazing views all around.  I felt pretty lucky to be up there looking at them.  As planned, Andy disappeared off into the sunset, leaving me to pick my way gingerly down the hill.  This was another big descent, 1,800m in 11km.  I really struggled here and had to walk more than I was running.  My quads when I descend for a long time become extremely painful, it must be the way I’m breaking but if you don’t break you’ll land on your face, or off the side of the hill.  But its agony.  I’m counting down the meters I’m dropping and its pretty disheartening to see the town you’re running to way down below, looking like a model village.  I break the time up by doing some filming, but by the end of the week I realise that I don’t have any footage of me actually running!  All 15 or so videos, I’m walking! 
I am being passed at a rate of knots and see girls I’ve not seen before coming by me so this must be bad!  Eventually at 6km to go I get passed by the girl I got stuck behind on the climb the day before.  We were each others “always see” person, we obviously ran a similar pace so saw each other every day.  She said “come on, we’re so close!” so I started running behind her.  We started chatting and her English was excellent (thanks to 16 years living in Hong Kong!) and it was a great distraction and I barely noticed the descent after that.  We reached the town and finished together, which was nice.  Andy was waiting for me, again coming in 30 mins before me.  It was a  6.15 day so relatively early which meant we got a nice bit of recovery time before the pasta party. 

Working hard

Sure beats the view from my office window

Day 4 Landeck - Samnaun
Distance – 48km
Ascent – 2,840
Descent – 1,820
Time – 10.15

Energy – 3/10
Leg soreness – 11/10
Nausea level – 8/10
Enjoyment – 4/10
Number of retches when taking gel – 7
Finish relief – 25/10
Pigs – 0
Killer cows - 2

So the final day was full of mixed feelings.  Relief that this was the last day, awful nausea at breakfast that lasted most of the morning, and the knowledge that this was the longest, hardest day that they’d made even longer due to a rock fall.  The first 4 hours were climbing.  Lots of climbing.  Some on road, some ridiculously steep, some where I got chased by a cow.  Most of which I felt sick for.  Its not easy getting up at 5am after very little sleep and having to try and cram down bread, cheese and spam before running.  I knew it was important to keep on top of nutrition as I’d not eaten much at breakfast and the climbs were going to take it out of me, and I needed something for the downs.  So I tried to take a gel fairly regularly, but sadly they just didn’t want to go down and I spent a lot of time retching at the side of the road.  Thankfully they did all stay down and got me up one of the steepest climbs of the race to the first checkpoint.  I am desperately trying to forget the rest of this day as it was quite possibly the hardest single thing I’ve done.  The climbing seemed to go on forever and I think its clear just how hard this stage was by the amount of time we were out there.  Andy had decided to take poles with him today and used them on the ups and I stole them for the downs as I needed something else to help me brake as my legs were totally gone.  They did seem to work though I was still painfully slow down the hills.  Then I got sore arms from using them as brakes so not sure what the solutions is.  I definitely need to find a way to stop this crippling quad pain when I descend.   Thankfully I had the poles when we came to the snowy descent, similar to the Ice Wall of day 2 but not so much of a risk of death.  I was skiing down the tracks of those that had gone before me and was possibly the most fun part of the whole event!  Until we realised that the reflection of all that snow had caused pretty bad sunburn to the backs of our legs which by hour 8 was beginning to smart! 

Smiles because we've done the last climb of the race
It took forever to get to the last aid station and this was down a long, steep forest road that was runnable, but only just.  We were both low on food so needed to get there soon and overtook a number of people on this section.  We eventually arrived, fed ourselves and I said goodbye to the lovely women running it as this was the last time we’d see them.  Only 8km to go.  Time on the clock was about 8h.45 and we still had a way to go.  The last 8km were a slow drag up hill which got steeper as we got towards the finish.  We decided the quickest way was to run and broke it up into sections of run 10mins then rest.  I don’t think I’ve ever struggled to run more than I did there.  But we chipped along as best we could, just desperate for this to be over and passed more people here than we had all day.  According to Andy’s parents who had been following us online back home, we were fastest there that anywhere else and made up a lot of places.  It certainly didn’t feel like we were moving fast but at least we were moving!  Each step took us closer to the finish and that couldn’t come soon enough.  But then we hit the last 4km which was all uphill again.  We walked for a bit and ran where we could and were told by a couple of finishers that we had “about” 2km to go.  Brilliant, we thought.  But then 10 mins later we saw the 3km to go sign and almost cried.  The last section of this race was pretty dire, unattractive road in a fairly empty area and through what looked like a quarry road at one point.  It was laughable really, all that time running through stunning landscapes with amazing views and we finish walking up a hill in no mans land!  We ran the last 500m or so as we were determined NOT to finish this by walking over the line and it was nice to see that the finish was still there and they hadn’t all packed up and gone home.  Phew, that was a tough stage with 10.18 on the clock but so pleased to have made it.


 Sadly we didn’t make it to the awards party as there was some trouble with Andy’s bag which was a real shame but we had got what we wanted out of this “training camp” which was to get round uninjured and take some of that fitness with us into our training for the next spell in the mountains.

During that last day I said that I didn’t want to race Transalpine, but now I’ve been back nearly a week I cant wait to get back out there.  There really is nothing nicer than running in that kind of terrain and though this race kicked my arse, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had and I’m pretty proud of myself to have got round it.  100miles along and 10k of ascent in 4 days is a pretty tough event – tougher than anything I’ve done before.  I remember being chuffed when I finished my first Ironman, thinking that was pretty hard but this event is far, far harder.  And for any of my triathlete friends that may disagree with that, please come and do this next year and you can see for yourselves! 

So now for a rest and recovery before the training into transalpine starts proper.  But this has given me a lot of confidence going into the next event so as long as I can keep myself injury free I should be in fine form come September.     

I can't wait to come back.......