Team Lochland Runner all got together for a training weekend recently. Included on the itinerary were sharing our top tips for expedition adventure racing and planning our strategy! Chloe is new to expedition events, but we have all been in different types of races and can always learn from each other.
I thought I’d share these in case you’re interested in the kinds of things we’re thinking about, or are looking for inspiration! Let us know if you have any questions or other top tips you would share 🙂
This is one we talked about many times! I for one like to know where the next meal is coming from and don’t go anywhere without snacks. However, in an expedition race you have to think about what will keep well in your kit bag for a week and make sure there are savoury items on the menu. We may also need to take opportunities that present themselves on the way. We’re just concerned about how well-endowed the race route will be with handy cafes! Since finding hidden cafe gems is one of my special skills, I will have to make sure I don’t spend the pre-race weekend researching detours …
With me being vegetarian and Chloe vegan, it is an extra challenge to think of good ideas and this is still a work in progress. Knowing that hot water is usually available in transition, some of our savoury ideas so far are:
Instant noodles, instant mashed potato, cup a soup, couscous, rice cakes, oatcakes with peanut butter, meals from Tentmeals, Firepot and Summit to Eat (I can vouch for at least one of these being very edible…), German rye bread, flavoured cooked rice pouches…
Sweet things are easier as we can use gels and bars and energy drinks in moderation. Lochland Runner are also helping us out here with Born products. Variety will be key!
… or more specifically, blister prevention!! Everyone has their own theories on this. Our consensus seemed to be:
- Get shoes and socks off feet quickly in transition to let them air
- Have crocs or similar to wear in transition
- Either talc them or moisturise them
- Treat hotspots quickly en route with either Compeed or gaffer tape
- Avoid woolly socks (I find tight fitting, quick drying compression socks work well)
- Stay hydrated
- Have a spare pair of running shoes to change pressure points
- Take sterilised scalpel blades and wipes to burst any big blisters that do appear…
CLOTHING AND KIT
Our discussion about this was more general, as we have to use what we are comfortable in and have tested well. Ideas we shared were:
- Take shoes for paddling, especially if there is any portage or walking involved (which we now know there will be!)
- Take two different pairs of shoes for running. If one pair are a bit bigger it can help with swollen feet later in the race
- Expect to be cold … colder than you expect! The effects of tiredness, night time and low food intake will all affect how warm we feel. I am still surprised how many of the photos from the race in Wales feature trousers and waterproofs …
- Have spare brake pads for your specific brakes
- Have enough battery power for your lights
- Pre-pack food into bags that will last about one stage so you can just take one out in transition
- Have a heavy duty waterproof bag to shove your backpack in and strap down on paddling stages
- Pre pack clothing into clear, labelled bags like short sleeves, long sleeves, shorts, trousers
- Pack as much as you need in transition bag, but no more! The more you have to rummage through or choose between, the longer transitions will take
- A tick remover per team is essential – they just love the damp Scottish heather and bracken. You need to keep checking and get them out within 24h to minimise risk of Lyme’s disease
- Caffeine tablets of some kind might come in handy as you pull your fourth all-nighter in a row!
- Take lip balm, you will not regret it
Well … I obviously can’t reveal too much here, it’s top secret 😀
However, my advice is to definitely discuss this and make sure everyone has the same idea about what you’re trying to achieve. You also need to be realistic about your collective abilities and what to expect from the course so that you can make smart decisions. Although you can’t predict what will happen, having a basic fall back plan and common goals will help make decision making easier.
I’d say things to think about include:
- Any aims for finishing position in the field
- Long course / short course
- How much sleep to expect, when and where
- Pacing and degree of ambition for different stages
- Towing and kit distribution
- Navigators (lead / back up and in different disciplines)
- Transition process (what order to change, eat, sleep), including ‘checkout’
- Team roles
Finally, always keep an eye on the details and don’t forget about your hairdo – no washing for a week with plenty of rain, sweat and river or sea water mixed in! I always go super short – I’d better go and get booked in for a cut 🙂
This year my main race will be Itera Expedition race in Scotland in early August. It’s for a team of 4 and we’ll be on the move for 5 days, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and possible other modes of transport or activity that have yet to be revealed! Here’s a wee introduction to our team and our thoughts about the race.
Team Name: Team Lochland Runner
Team Members: Rosemary Byde, Jon Ellis, Andrea Davison, Chloe Rafferty
We are supported by Lochland Runner, who supply innovative brands for sports like trail running, swimrun, OCR, and orienteeering.
I raced with Jon in Itera Wales – but one of our team members was Paul McGreal who is otherwise occupied this time round (he’s one of the organisers)! Andrea is an Open Adventure regular, has expedition race experience and is making her comeback. Chloe is our secret weapon … she runs events company LoveSwimRun, lives in North Wales and can often be seen out in the mountains biking, climbing, running or swimming.
The most important thing in forming our team was making sure we had similar goals and expectations and that we all have a similar ethos and approach to working together. We’ll be putting that to the test with a training weekend later in June 🙂
Special team skills include engineering, mountain leading, sewing, an obsession with detail, a love of maps and more than one person trained in optimising solutions to problems! As the race goes on, I am sure we will discover many more talents amongst us.
Why did we choose to do this and what are our expectations of the race / Scotland?
The Scottish highlands are a wild and beautiful place and we all want to experience more of it. We know we are going to the perfect location for an epic adventure that Paul, Tom, James and the team are sure to deliver. The anticipation and excitement are already growing.
Whilst the rest of us have done similar races before, this is Chloe’s first time. She’s alternately terrified and excited and can’t wait to race as part of a team. Although the effects of sleep deprivation and how to stay fuelled as a vegan are on her mind, she has been primed for special ‘visual effects’ (sleepmonsters) and someone has promised to carry emergency flapjack supplies 😉
Even though it is the first week of the new school year, Andrea is making her expedition race comeback before she gets ‘too old’! Sleep is on her mind too, as she doesn’t want to miss out on the memories.
However, Jon and I clearly remember the fun, camaraderie and amazing landscapes we moved through last time and nothing was going to stop us entering again …
We’re all relishing the challenge and anticipating the sense of achievement we’ll get from doing the event. We’re going to be pushing ourselves and it has been the motivation for some of us to increase our training, pick up new skills or reacquaint ourselves with old ones. I for one know that whilst I still soldier on with hamstring rehab for running, my mountain bike is seeing significantly more action than recent swimrun years have afforded!
Our expectations are that we will finish mid pack. The most important things are for us to work hard, help each other, make the most of our collective abilities and never stop trying until we get to the finish line!
Finally, one person has already mentioned the dreaded ‘M’ word … we’re all hoping that we’ll be moving too fast for any midges to catch us for breakfast!
At Loveswimrun Holy Island, Andy Parritt asked me if I’d like to come to an invitational event in Bantham, headlined by Vivobarefoot. I was unsure. My hamstring hurt, it was a long way away and I was committed to spending that weekend with Marie. So then he invited Marie too! She was enthusiastic and I was persuaded … As time went on, I saw Graham the physio and was diagnosed with a ‘proximal hamstring tendinopathy in reactive state’, which in turn caused me to react with a high state of stress!
However, the minute I met Marie at Edinburgh airport on a wild Friday night I relaxed a bit. We would have fun. How our plane landed at Bristol, I do not know. The wings tipped and tilted, we bounced and the passengers applauded as we taxied along. As we drove to the rendezvous (‘somewhere in Devon, maybe?’ we told the car hire chap) the roads went from wide, deserted and windswept to tiny with passing places and hedges and trees forming tunnels over our heads. As the rain lashed against the windscreen we wondered where was this place we were heading to?!
We arrived and crept into the large, dark, quiet house. We had instructions on how to find our beds, where we also found an update on the race route and logistics. It suited me with a bit less running! As we lay down to sleep we could hear the wind buffeting outside. When we woke up we were greeted with a spectacular view of the estuary and the sea with gigantic waves coming in. Wow!
As everyone else started emerging it was clear we were in for a great weekend. The vibe was relaxed and it turned out I knew plenty of people. We assembled on the lawn for the start and briefing then were off along the lane and through trees covering a carpet of prickly conker shells, then out at the end of the estuary. We were 2nd but I knew there was a fast swimming team behind us!
Sure enough, they flew past and there was no way I could hold their feet this early in the race. The closer we got to the sea, the rougher it became, delivering me with a few mouthfuls of salty water straight to the back of my throat. Ugh! As we approached an area full of boats, I was confused. Which way to go? We were following the bank, as instructed, but eventually spotted the pink thatched house we had been told to look for. As we set off again, we saw a crowd coming in from our right on a straighter line. Bother!
I wasn’t letting them all overtake due to our dodgy route choice and powered ahead. As we got out, I was urging Marie on and we lost a hat, kindly redelivered to us by the team just behind! This is when we started to realise the route might be hillier than expected, as we slogged to the cliff top before looping back down. We managed to pull away again as Marie pulled me!
Across the estuary, there was a slight ‘disagreement’ as I aimed off to account for the current and Marie decided to go her own way 😀 . Then we were out and I was dragged up the endless hill on the other side before we hammered back down to the sea, wading over to an island surrounded by surfers coming out to play.
The route on the island was uncertain … but we went up to the building, looped round and down the other side. More wading and more climbing before another long estuary swim. We were getting well and truly ‘swooshed’ now, almost coming a cropper under a boat as I tried to take a better line than the first time! At great speed we aimed again for the distinctive house and the point and leapt out. ‘Only 900m to go!’ I yelled, but we were diverted onto part of the route that had been missed out on the first run due to uncooperative tides!
We picked our way over fascinating rocks that merited a return visit later on, then scrambled up a cliff and along a narrow path at the top, with Marie still trying to make me run despite the precariousness! (‘You never know who might be coming after us’, she insisted). Down the steep grassy bank, into the village and back to the lawn, touching the flag to finish!
I had a lovely time and my leg held up OK, only a bit of discomfort. The weekend hadn’t finished though, with pizzas, cider, curry for dinner and speakers. We won a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes for our efforts, only being beaten by two male pairs.
In the morning, we had the delightful experience of swimrun group training as many of us set off to see some of the planned course that had had to be cut due to conditions. Lovely cliff top running down to a bay, swimming up to a rock arch that I decided was too dangerous to swim through … this time. Tumbled and turned by rollers on the way back. More running, some jumping, a second short swim and back to the house, where brunch was spread out invitingly, just waiting for us to tuck in.
Everyone started heading home after a bit of clearing up, but we had the rest of the day to spare. We went off to Dartmouth to see the castle and go and explore the coastal walk, coves and an old fort before escaping just as it got dark and returning for leftover curry.
I had such a good time and the effect on my mood was worth more than any detrimental effect to my hamstring (which, to be honest, seemed no worse for the experience). Massive thanks to Andy and Marie for persuading me to go. Also to Andy and Nigel for persevering with putting on an event for beginners and experienced teams alike, all in the face of crazy weather and dubious coastguards. Finally to everyone else who helped make this happen, to the volunteers and other racers who were so congenial, and to Vivobarefoot for their generous support. We felt we were being treated like royalty (or rock stars, according to Marie) and it was a privilege to be there. Thanks!
Pictures from me, Marie and Vivobarefoot team.
(for a taste of the race here is the official video. We star, for maybe 1 or 2 seconds near the end!)
Our fourth, and possibly final, Ötillö world champs was preceded by a relaxed few days in Stockholm, enjoying the scenery, eating and sleeping. We needed it as due to new race logistics, on race day we had to get out of bed when the night had barely started. It didn’t make a lot of difference, 03:30 is as bad as 04:30.
Our goal was to go faster than last year. We had a plan, which suggested sub-11h was realistic. Part one of this plan was a strong first swim to get in a good position on the rocks in case there was crowding (more teams in the race than ever before). At the last minute on the start line, I wonder if we were too far back. In fact, we were right at the back! But it was too late, the gun went and we were off.
We followed the long line of paced runners to the beach and as we swam across strongly, passing teams, I kept thinking about how much further up we might have been! But there was plenty of time to go.
We had discussed the need to ‘claim our space’ on the rocks, to let teams work their own way past. However, we moved well and were actually holding our position. On review, we made up a lot of time here compared to last year, helped perhaps by the dry rocks, but I think also our mindset.
On the first longer run it was time to pick up the pace. At the feed station we were 10 mins up on the plan. We were going so fast, so well, but at end I felt the tow suddenly go tight. I willed Izzy to hang on in there, promising a ‘rest’ very soon … and then we were back swimming and short runs through the woods and over logs.
At the next long swim we paused and could see everyone bow to the left. I aimed off to the right and we held a lovely direct line (as revealed by checking our gps trace later). At the time we could only ponder if we had been genius or insane as we approached the shore a very different way to our fellow competitors.
In and out we went until the next longer run. I was going to consult on strategy but Izzy beat me to it and asked me to take it back half a percent. She was still positive though, and I was happy. We held a fair speed and at the next check we were still ahead of plan by 10 minutes.
I break the race into chunks I can remember and next up is ‘more in and out and two longer swims’.
Part of the plan was to do the swims a little bit faster. This was generally the case, but the pig swim was slower. Compared to some other years, it was like a mill pond and not pig-like in the slightest. I can only imagine we had a wind or current in our favour last year!
At the next long one there was lots of discussion with a marshal about where to aim. I didn’t understand as the flag seemed clear. We jumped in, I checked for something to aim for on land above the flag and we set off. The flag did not appear to be coming into view and we stopped to check. It had vanished. That would be because it was attached to a boat … Izzy said ‘there’s the landing flag, just to the right of the gap!’. Ah yes the gap, that is what I was aiming for … Lesson in this … We meant very different things by ‘gap’! Eventually I corrected but it was not our finest line. The team to our left did much worse though… Not sure flags on boats criss-crossing the line of sight to the landing flag are all that helpful!
Just before the short swim to Ornö we met Josefine at the feed station, who was giving out hugs of encouragement – much appreciated to help us brace for the final big test!
We landed and I knew we had been losing time but only our 10 minute ‘buffer’ – we were now on plan and I said so. Izzy is surprised. This is when we needed to push on. I set off like a rabbit, but the tow immediately went tight. It was so hard. I knew I couldn’t maintain anything like this and my head needed to calm down and be sensible. Maybe we were paying for our earlier pace. I had worried about this, but if you want to achieve a time you have to commit.
The track was intermittently stony and we had to ease off. Then we got onto easier roads. We had cabbed down our wetsuits but I was so, so hot. I was not happy at all and ‘may’ have said rude things about this particular leg of the race, but Izzy did a great job of encouraging me and motivating us. It was so good for lifting my mood.
At the feed station I checked progress. We were now down on our plan, but there had been some slack in it. I say I think if we can just match last year’s speed from here, we can still do 11h. Objectively we were still doing well, it was better than it felt, we were catching a few teams and not getting caught. Mentally I was boosted, but physically the heat was still a battle and I felt nauseous. I am a bad weather girl!
Later our stats tell us we were slower over Ornö, not faster as planned. My dreams of a sub 11 or even better had faded. But we jumped into the sea with friends Christophe and Emmanuel and we all four whooped with delight and were so happy to be in the cool water 🙂
Here last year, the short swims were hell but now they were so still and easy. We tried to focus, though the technical terrain was now testing both mind and body.
Eventually we got out for the final run. Izzy said to me ‘clear these rocks then you can pull as hard as you like and I will just get on with it and whimper behind’. I check my watch. 10h40 with about 3.5km to go including some rocks and at least one hill. I say ‘we cannot break 11h but we will beat last year’. Then I go for it. I always like a sprint finish regardless 😉
(check this out – from 11:09:21)
We passed a couple of teams but stuck to our own thing. Izzy asked me how far to go. 2km. She managed to scoff an emergency gel without breaking stride! We were filmed for the live webcast for our last 4 mins … up that hill, on and on, both giving it everything we had. We crossed the line. I stopped my watch. I glanced down and questioned myself, knowing I had accidentally paused it at some point in the race. I looked up at gantry but it was true – 10:58:54! We smashed the last run and we were both so happy. There were big hugs, then tears of emotion from me. I couldn’t even breathe!
We sat and drank coke and got a shower. Everyone was so fast this year, our position felt disappointing. But we cannot control the competition or the weather. So we enjoyed the vibe and catching up with friends. And then we were on the boat heading to the airport for an early flight the next day.
We met our target, but in a slightly different way from the plan. I’ve got mixed feelings about this, but in the end we got it done and it is so good to get a time to our names starting 10 something … in 4 years we have taken 2h off our time, and that is not to be sniffed at.
The dream team will still do some other races together though – maybe even another one this year!
Many thanks to our supporters and this year especially to Matt at Improve My Running … I was trying my best to maintain form!
I also want to dedicate this report to our dear friend Jim, who died a week after the race. He was an outdoorsy sort who loved wild swimming. He was always up for an adventure and pushing his boundaries and had come with me to some MTB / run races. He followed our progress avidly and helped us with various training sessions. We’ll all miss his companionship and unique take on life. X
This race on the Gower peninsula was a few weeks ago, right in the middle of our heatwave … This time, I am going to let the photos do most of the talking!
The first run was a mass start down to Worm’s Head. It was quite early in the day, so was not too hot just yet. We’re not actually leading the race here, but I like the photographer who has made it look like that!
First swim was over to Worm’s Head – not advised / allowed unsupervised! But the race was timed to go over when it was safe. We were on the tow, but quickly changed our minds once we landed. This was the most technical part of the race, with rocks and beds of tiny mussels and scrambly bits to get over.
The next swim was across a big bay, with grand cliffs to one side. It was here I saw an actual SHARK! It was no Jaws, but was slinking along, shark-like, on the seabed. We carried on swimming and when I remembered to tell Izzy later she was quite disbelieving – until she saw one herself on the next swim! You have been warned if you fancy swimming here 😉
The coastline was pretty and we had some interesting entrance and exits from the smaller bays, like this one.
In other places, we came ashore onto wide sandy bays. Did I mention yet that it was hot? Well, it was baking, which meant there were plenty of other people just having a nice day out, swimming and paddling. It was hard to see the flags on some of the exits, so I would just aim for the place the paddle boarders directed us to, and try not to mow down any casual swimmers or paddlers on the way in 😀
I already mentioned the sharks, but there were also some truly enormous jellyfish. We had found a dead one on the beach before the race. I was glad we did, because we looked them up and knew they were harmless barrel jellyfish. Despite that, it was still disconcerting to find ourselves swimming in close proximity to so many of them that I lost count. Eek!
There were a couple of longer runs following the coastal path. Although you don’t go up any ‘hills’ (not until the end…), it is up and down all the time and the sun was really hotting up. Add to this some stony sections and the occasional big sand dune, and it was quite hard work. Pretty, though.
This run was quite hard work – all of it was along the beach. The sand was mostly firm, but also very wrinkled in a way that was not wide enough for a foot!
We were following small red arrows, minimally placed at key junctions. At one point, we were sent up a steep wee hill to a gate. We met some walkers coming down, telling us it was the wrong way and we should go along the other path, like the ‘sprinters’ had the previous day. We hesitated. The teams in front had all gone this way and not turned back. The arrow went this way and it was a different race to yesterday. In the end we carried on. It was looking unlikely as we were on a road, but still no one came back. There were no markers, but that was not unusual … I found someone’s reusable cup in a hedge so we knew at least one team had come this way!
Eventually we met a man who said we were definitely going the wrong way for Brandy Cove and he helpfully gave us directions to the quickest way there. We had added about a km to the route, but I think what positions we lost, we mainly made up for again.
By the way, GarminConnect seems to think it was 16 degrees. It is wrong. See watch temperature! This was the view when we finally found the elusive Brandy Cove.
It was always a relief to get in the water, though it was so warm we never really got cold before it was time to get out again! So we had to wrestle our wetsuits down for almost every run, else we would have over-heated. We ate and drank more than usual and I loved the salty potatoes at the aid stations. Also a word for the volunteers, who were all cheerful and amazing. The same can be said of many of the spectators too. It was fantastic at one place to find everyone on the beach clapping and cheering as we got out and ran off!
A few of the later swims were designed so that we started in one bay, and swam round some rocks into the next one along. These feel like mini adventures as you’re not sure what you’ll find round the corner.
Some of the entry spots were quite ‘interesting’ as well.
As we got closer to Mumbles (which is a relatively big town), the path was better made and we saw some ‘features’ decorating the trail.
Eventually we got to the final run. I thought we would be close to 7h. This was a number I had picked out of the air as a target time. Often I plan in meticulous detail, but hadn’t had the time or energy to do so for this race. It was based roughly on the times from people last year, and because it was a round number of hours.
As we started the final run I was unsure we would make it. The first km out of the water was up a hill and I knew there was more to come as we had checked this bit out exploring the area in the days before the race.
I thought we were doomed until we came a bit closer. I suddenly realised there was a chance we could do it, despite the fact the tow was getting tighter and tighter. I yelled encouragement to Izzy, whose retort I won’t repeat 😉 But then we rounded the corner, down a small drop, across a busy road in a fortuitous gap, dash down through the trees and round the corner …
We made it! 6:59:22 ! Even better, we were 1st female pair, 21st overall. Results here.
The finishing area had shade, a shower, barbecue (including veggie stuff) and ice cream, so we hung around for a while 🙂 In fact it was hard to leave, because by then it had become too hot to move in the sun, but it had to be done! I felt really wiped out that evening but recovered quickly, so I think it was more the effect of the heat than the physical effort (great as it was!).
Thanks to the organisers and all involved – a race I’d recommend even though I had to get up very early. Top tips – stay on the coastal path and watch out for the wildlife 😀
I got into the LoveSwimRun Llanberis event on a bit of an impulse. It wasn’t ideal in my overall busy June / July plans, but I was so glad I went! My dad lives in the area, so accommodation was sorted, as was a lift the short drive to and from the venue (thanks dad 🙂 ).
It was my second ‘short’ event and my first ‘solo’. From my experience and what I saw, it was a great format and I wish we had more races like this here! It was perfect for getting out and ‘training’ / having a fun race without having to coordinate with someone else or complex transport logistics. There seemed to be lots of triathletes / newbies taking part, and you could also go as a pair if you wanted to. I think it’s a good stepping stone to try it out and move onto longer races with a partner, if you want to.
Back to the race – and I cut it fine at the start, scurrying in to the pen and hoiking up my suit with only a minute or two to spare 😮 . The race started in waves – male solos, then female solos, then two waves of mixed teams. So unusually, us solo women all lined up by ourselves and when the gun went, off we shot. Within a couple of hundred metres I was in lead. This felt weird. I could hear the ‘pack’ thundering behind me and when my watch beeped the first km wondered if I had gone out much too fast!
Kept reminding myself it was a short race though, and stuck at it to see what happened. Comedy entry as I focussed on getting my towfloat sorted (a requirement if you were solo), but forgot to zip up or bring my pullbuoy round. I got better though!
The race has more swimming and short runs at the start, crossing the Llyn Padarn railway twice, before heading off down the lake. I was unsure how I’d find the long 8km+ run in the heat and up a massive hill. Still, my pace was still good before we hit the zigzags and I ran it all, except the bits I walked 😀 .
As we popped out above my dad’s house, the marking wasn’t clear. Hmm, I was sure we should turn left along the top of the quarries but the marker said go down the hill. I knew there was a troublesome resident along there and wondered if the route had been changed to divert round (I knew the area too well and knew you could go down, along and back up again!). No-one else was in sight, so I started trotting down the hill. When I saw no arrows at the bottom I diverted back up.
Past a tree pulled down since the evening before, and into the woods. Signs had definitely been tampered with, as the arrow on the junction had been twisted round so it was not visible. I stopped and clambered up to turn it back. Off down the hill again and I seemed to have lost some of the drive to go really fast, even though the descent seemed over so quickly compared to walking (a route we do often).
Getting back into Llyn Padarn was bliss, the water was lovely. This was the longest and final swim. As I went along I was feeling pretty pleased that none of the pairs had caught me up. At that moment, a male pair came charging up alongside!! I was having none of that and jumped on their feet, suddenly finding new speed.
I had a plan … I could have a speedier exit than them and overtake in the last seconds up to transition. What this plan didn’t account for was a) me forgetting I had a tow float bouncing behind me b) me getting tangled up in their tow c) the last bit to the arch being considerably shorter than I had remembered when I had looked at it earlier. In a comedy move, I tripped over them, landed on my knees and palms (ouch), got some bewildered looks as they said ‘er, you go on if you want’ !! Ha ha – sorry – I was a bit over enthusiastic!
Great race, accessible to beginners but a good test if you’re experienced too, well organised and super friendly. Some nice prizes, and lots of spot prizes too. Recommended!
When I first heard about the Ultra Trail Snowdonia I was immediately tempted. It ticked a few boxes for me. It was in the mountains, a new race, looked like a challenge and started almost on my dad’s doorstep. As I debated how to set up my calendar of major races for this year, I couldn’t let this one go. I went for the ‘short’ version at 50ish miles – I didn’t even qualify for the 100, let alone contemplate entering it!
And so started months of planning and preparation. I’m no stranger to long endurance events, but I’d only done one ultra before – the Tour de Helvellyn last year, which was enough to qualify me for this. I ran a bit more and was consistent, building on what I started last year. I investigated shoes (needed more cushioning for long distance on rocky terrain – plumped for La Sportiva Akashas) and went through several kit iterations trimming a little weight here and there. Although I was going as light as possible, I actually carried all the ‘recommended’ kit as well as the ‘mandatory’. A good example was that I stowed a Primaloft jacket in – I know how cold it can get when you slow down to stop and the weather is bad.
Preparation didn’t stop at kit. I also made my way over to Wales to recce the route, making sure I was carrying full race gear and testing clothing options. First up, section 1 by myself, then meet up with Andy and do section 2. All went well and I was thinking 16 hours might be a good time for the course. Although it was hilly, it was largely runnable. Second trip down and I set up a mini expedition. Running with all the kit and testing out poles, I quickly found I made good use of them on the Snowdon ascent. The next two sections were eye-opening. In the fog and on my own, it took ages just following the line on my gps, up steep slopes and across scrambly ridges. I nearly quit at Beddgelert, but pushed on and found myself running off Cnicht in the dark and fog, head torch useless and blindly following the trail line on my watch. I had never been so glad to fall into the Red Dragon camping pod, get my clean kit on and snuggle under a duvet with a rehydrated meal. The last section the next day was more of the same, with some scary moments on the Y Lliwedd ridge. I revised my time estimates to nearer 20h.
Finally I also wanted a really good map. A few hours with various map software and Photoshop, plus a favour from a friend who could print in colour on A3 waterproof paper and I had a perfectly highlighted route on two very light sheets, 1:25k scale. I wasn’t about to trust a scaled down 1:50k to get me off a hill at night!
In the run up to the race, I got the usual pre-big race type problems. My knee hurt. Work was stressful and I worried I had not slept enough. I got a bug. Actually – a proper virus three weeks out that I thought would be well gone by race day, but in fact I still had a sore throat on the start line …
The night before, I went to bed at 22:00. I tossed and turned for a bit, fell asleep, woke up, and generally attempted to ‘rest’ until the alarm went off at 03:15. I went through my ‘to do’ list and set off with Andy to walk down through the woods to the start in the dawn light.
Section 1 – Llanberis to Waunfawr (Moel Eilio)
Quite uneventful, apart from beautiful sunrise views and my shadow appearing in the perfect circle of a rainbow formed by the mists. I ate plenty and did not get overtaken by hordes of people on the descent. Final run in was chatting with a guy talking about how long he takes to ‘usually’ run 50 miles …
At the feed station, I was half an hour up on my plan, which was concerning and put doubts in my mind. Had I gone out too fast? Also had a bit of faff with my mug, which I resolved to sort out at the next stop!
Section 2 – Waunfawr to Bron-y-fedw-uchaf (Mynydd Mawr)
It was getting hot in the sun and I was slightly stressed as three men ran on my heels full of random chat whilst I was working too hard to stay out of the way … eventually I stopped to let them past. The route was a little different here to what I had recce’d but was obvious enough and we were soon on the steep climb. I worked my way up and was encouraged to eat by another competitor, even though I didn’t feel like it.
On the trickier descent a few people came past, but I was staying calm. Over the road and into the farm for more food. Another 10 minutes faster than plan. Hmm.
Section 3 – Bron-y-fedw-uchaf to Rhyd-Ddu (Snowdon via ranger’s path)
As I set off again, I walked for a while eating. It was warming up now, and I felt a bit dizzy and nauseous when I put an effort in, in a way I hadn’t earlier in the day. I tried to stay calm and steadily worked my way up. I fell in with Geoff from Manchester, who was a welcome distraction. I felt like I was clawing my way up the hill with my poles!
I tried to relax on the descent and stay focussed. There were rocky sections and I stumbled occasionally. I must be getting tired! Here I met an Irish man who I had to ask to repeat almost every sentence! 😀 He had broken his leg at the end of last year and only had it out of plaster in January. Respect.
The next feed station was where I’d meet Andy and dad with my drop bag. They knew from my tracker and a text I’d sent that I was ahead of plan, another 20 minutes, so they were there when I cruised in smiling 1h ahead of schedule.
I had always planned to feed up a bit here as the next leg is the hardest of the race. However, I didn’t really add the planned stop time here into the plan! Not to worry, after a toilet break, couple of bowls of soup and some homemade coconut rice with choc chips and blueberries + reload of snacks and drinks and I was ready to go again. I’d taken half an hour so was still 30 minutes ahead.
Section 4 – Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert (Mynydd Drws-y-coed and Moel Hebog)
The climb out of the village is a killer – super steep. I walked up calmly, leading a few others up the way. At one point we met someone sat down declaring it was too hard and he couldn’t do it. I assured him he could and indeed saw him again much, much later in the race. At the top of here there is a sharp ridge. It was so much more fun and in some ways less scary in the sunshine than it was in fog. I clambered up and over, thinking at this point how much I was loving the race and what a shame it was that we had already done so much 😮
There was some pre-race debate about the technical sections and how difficult they were. I think this is all a matter of perspective and experience. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as easy / nothing dangerous as some did, and if you had a fear of heights or airy drops you’d struggle. On the other hand, if you took your time, all these sections were short and doable and I enjoyed them.
We came down to the bwlch and dropped through the old quarries. There was some confusion as the markers weren’t obvious, but a few others and I knew the way and we were soon round and starting the next ascent. My memory of this section was a little hazy from the recce and now I was finding out why. I must have blanked it from my mind! It went on and on, 2 mini peaks on the way to the beast of Moel Hebog. Now it felt like my poles were the only thing stopping me from falling backwards.
The descent was hard as well, down a zig-zaggy scree-strewn path that taxed tired legs. I was waiting for a water refill at a spring I had found on recce but in the end decided it was so close to the feed station I need not bother. I was pretty thirsty though.
Just as I arrived at the community hall it started raining. My dad was there, trying to take a photo with the camera switched off! Also, why, oh why were the women’s toilets up some stairs?! 😀
My estimated time for this section was always going to be prone to a bit more error, so I was moderately happy to see I was only 15 minutes slower than planned, despite how hard it had felt. I hadn’t intended to stop too long here, but decided I needed more soup, sandwiches and rice. 15 minutes later it had stopped raining and I was ready to go. I was now leaving exactly on schedule, 16:15.
Section 5 – Beddgelert to Nantgwynant (Cnicht)
Somehow the break had seized my legs up and I found it hard to get running again. I felt a bit sick and something was going on in my left eye. I made use of the public toilets before the road section, but still couldn’t decide what I should do about stomach – had I not eaten enough? Drunk enough? Eaten too much too fast?
My eye was still bothering me and I realised the contact lens was not sitting as it should. Dammit, what would Izzy do?! I ran to the final junction hoping for a car with a wing mirror, but there was none. I had 4 options: do nothing and hope it settled, take it out and try and put it back in, take them both out and run with nothing, take it out and replace with a new one (buried deep in my bag somewhere!). I decided to try the second option. I couldn’t tell if it was the right way round and it was sticky and dry. A pair of runners caught me up and Sarah was very good at helping me get it back in again without a mirror. It stung like mad (dirty, salty, suncream fingers?!) but that made my eye water, which helped rehydrate it!
Off we went, at roughly the same pace. I hoped to stay with this pair, but when I stopped to refill my water bottle they got ahead and I just couldn’t close the gap. I still felt so sick and every time I put an effort in I felt dizzy, hot and sweaty again. I had to back off. Another runner gave me two polo mints and some chat up the final push, for which I am very grateful. We diverted the easier way to the summit then over the top into the boggy descent. I recce’d this in the dark and it was much easier in daylight. Despite that, the markers were very sparse (this whole section had been subject to some interference) and I went slightly awry once. Back on the main path and I was descending with increasingly sore blisters.
Someone new came up and I was able to chat a bit to Chris, which was good. Andy bounced up the road to meet us and at that second, one of the blisters burst and it was as if I had been stabbed in the heel with a hot poker. My new friend ran off and I limped into the aid station, where Andy had brought my drop bag out again. It was lucky I had asked them to bring this as it had my glasses in, so I could ditch the lenses. I also peeled off compression socks to apply a couple of blister plasters and tried to eat.
My head went down a bit here, thinking my ‘race’ was over (though I had no intention of stopping). I had taken half an hour longer than planned and was now stuck here for another half hour, treating blisters and close to tears. In reality, I wonder how much my mood dip affected the next leg – after all – my plan had been a ‘best case’ and I wasn’t that far off it.
My dad and Andy exchanged glances as I was determined to set off again but looked terrible (apparently). Several people had come and gone and I was fast slipping backwards through the field. I was really hobbling as I started, but knew from experience the pain would probably ease.
Section 6 – Nantgwynant to Llanberis (Y Lliwedd and Snowdon via Watkin and Miners’ paths)
Again, I was feeling pretty rough. Sections I had run in training I was only managing a walk, and when the path tipped upwards, I couldn’t put an effort in. My legs were fine but the nausea and dizziness kept returning. I allowed myself little micro breaks to stretch out. Even one of my shoulders was getting sore from pole use!
It was now dark and I could see the lights of other runners way, way up on the ridge above me and it felt as if they would never get closer. But eventually they did and soon I was on the scramble. It was good to be distracted and I actually found this OK. Again, we could see the lights of people now far below in the valley and dotted up the hillside as they did their final ascent of Snowdon on the Miner’s path.
The descent to Llyn Llydaw was one of the slowest and most tortuous I have done. The blisters were much more painful going down than up and I no longer trusted my legs to hold me up properly. Little steps looked like looming precipices. However, I was still making forward progress. Ally stayed with me to the end of the techy section, including a part where I may have whimpered, fearing I would slide down a slab of rock and down the mountainside! Finally I got to the easier part of the path and even managed to attempt some sort of run. I had to keep stopping to pee quite excessively though, which was slowing me down!
There was an ‘emergency’ aid station at Llyn Llydaw, where I got a couple of snacks and pushed on. I saw them note down the time. 01:00. Yikes. Next up, 3 drunk teenagers explaining to me how they were going to be the first alcoholics up Snowdon on an impromptu expedition with just their iPhone torches and asking how long it would take, was it this way and was this the steep part? Er no … I wondered if I should be assertive telling them to turn around but decided they would do that for themselves well before they got anywhere near the top. At least it encouraged me into a run to leave them behind!
A few people came past and I really longed for chat and company as I was now suffering from sleep deprivation. However, I just did not have the oomph to keep up and that frustrating dizziness was still there. I had to keep adjusting my zip and hood as I switched rapidly from too hot to too cold.
Finally, the top came and it was just one long run down to the finish. I looked back and couldn’t see anyone close behind. I resolved that no more people would pass me now. Somehow I had a revival, and started running properly. I texted Andy to make sure he’d get to the finish at the right time. The cuckoo woke up and reminded me it was morning again. I blasted through groups of mostly inattentive walkers heading up for the sunrise. I went under the railway, past the halfway house. I stumbled on a rock but saved the fall with my poles. Then it seemed to go on and on and on … I thought I was nearly there?! But I had decided to go for it and go for it I would. The road eventually came, horrendously steep on sore legs, then a trip round the back of the houses and into town.
I ran down the finish chute and fell in a heap …
I did make it in within 24 hours, finally clocking 23:41. However, I had lost over 3h compared to my plan on the last section – a combination of darkness, blisters, sleepiness and probably my mental state. Andy insisted I ate straight away, although I just longed to get my shoes and socks off and lie down. On my way to the toilet I more or less fainted, so my body was definitely having a meltdown!
We woke up dad and he came to collect us, so then I could get into a proper bed and sleep for a few hours…
I did the race a lot slower than I had wanted and was disappointed with my time. I came 99th out of 129 finishers, 166 starters, 191 on entry list – results here. I had put so much effort into planning and preparation, so I felt deflated. On the other hand, I had seen it through to the end and learnt a lot! It was also an incredible and unforgettable experience.
It’s hard to compare this race to others. It’s not just the ascent for the distance (6000m in 89km – strava), but also the ruggedness of the terrain. A few more experienced people were commenting it wasn’t like anything else they’d done, even in the Alps. Also on the positive side, recovery seems to have been pretty good. The blisters are healing fast (they’re not the worst I’ve had!), the soreness was gone by Thursday and I haven’t noticed any ‘injuries’ as yet – even the phantom pre-race knee pain hasn’t made an appearance.
I can’t decide what had the biggest factor on performance, though I suspect I set off at ‘full health’ pace and was affected later by the lingering virus. On top of that though, there are almost certainly a few other things I could change. I’d attach my number on my bag somewhere – it was handy to see timings but it was massive and felt funny on my tummy. Food – I’d take time to ‘cook’ a proper dehydrated meal at one of the feed stations, to fuel up and settle my stomach (I had one but didn’t use it). I probably also need to find a way to eat more on the way. Drink – more water, weaker energy solution, maybe ditch the coke (but never had problems with it before). Blisters – I’d had hot spots before that didn’t turn into anything even after 12+hours. However, 15 or 16 hours in they were causing real trouble, so I should have looked after them sooner. Pacing – undecided on this one! Maybe set off a bit slower. Illness – I’d try and start at 100% health, but this is pretty difficult to control! Photos – I clearly stopped taking these the tireder I was and the darker it got 😀
This was Michael Jones’ / Apex Running first event as race director. There were a few small things I’d change for next year, but on the whole the race was very well organised. I’m ambivalent about race flags as I think people can be too reliant on them, but the course was mostly very well marked. Feed stations had a wide variety of food and didn’t run out – surplus was later donated to charity, which was a nice touch. Volunteers were unfailingly helpful and cheerful, even though some of them must have been in place for 24 hours or more! We got a decent T-shirt, a fantastic Silva dry bag, a buff and a discount at Joe Brown’s shops, which had lots of things you need for a race like this. If I’d been anywhere near them, the prizes even went down to 5th. Finally, the course was nothing if not memorable and certainly a challenge! If you had done your research and knew what you were taking on, it was awesome. Short race video here.
Thanks to everyone involved, from organiser to volunteers, other racers and my supporters. Here’s to next year – I’ve got unfinished business!
For the last in this year’s short series, we were in Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. My mum gave me a lift over and spent the time pottering around the village, going for a walk in the nature reserve(not yet in flower due to long winter) and watching a team practising a rescue in the falls.
Meanwhile, I was off on the usual 5h of MTBing and running. Sadly, Lucy still did not feel confident enough to race with me, so we both went solo. I felt a bit stressed looking at the MTB map, but as I walked back to the start I formulated a definite plan and felt better.
Off I went, confidence high. However, I soon was riding along and saw what looked like a control on a post. I hesitated but knew it wasn’t the right place and assumed it was a run control. On I went to the right place – no tape, no little box! I dithered, took a photo*, dithered some more, realised what I had seen couldn’t be a run control (wrong bit of map), wondered about going back, thought what would Tom Gibbs do (certainly wouldn’t have still been standing there), and eventually left up the hill.
Now I was anxious and when I saw a public footpath signed that didn’t seem to be on my map I worried further that I was somewhere totally wrong! I also seemed to be slogging up a very long climb off road, and wasn’t seeing any other racers. Hmm. That should have told me something 😉 Over the top and I was definitely in the right place and carried on directly to a control the other side.
The rest of the route seemed to go quite well, but I left a short road out and back and later on another longer loop to leave time for some running and to ‘be sensible’.
My mum cheered me through transition, telling me she had done the same for Lucy! The run was actually pretty good. I was keeping a close eye on the map to avoid making mistakes. I did not cheat at the all-too-easy shortcut across a field where you could see the control tape fluttering and not even a fence across, but was not a right of way or open access.
One small overshoot on the road then up into the woods. I was very careful here as it was a maze of paths, but I was dead accurate, if a little slow. Up onto open ground I realised I had a lot more time than expected and could do a larger loop. At this point I heard a shout: ‘I could do with a tow now please!’ It was Lucy coming up behind! We chatted briefly, but I was moving faster up the hill.
On I went, past James for a photo and into an old house to find a control on a roof beam upstairs. The dead sheep by the stairwell gave me a right old fright though … Then it was downhill return to the village. Again I was checking the route carefully- maybe too much. At the bottom I debated one final out and back and Lucy caught me up – she had flown down a LOT faster. I decided against and we jogged back in. I was 6 minutes early!
On review, it turned out my bike route choice was really quite daft. Everyone else went the other way round, got 50 points I left out climbing a road with a fast descent back down, and then leaving an out-of-the-way control, ascending the other way on tarmac where I had faffed around on the moors. I also missed a couple of spots where I could have used that time to get at least one more control, despite my odd route choice. Hey ho, I think I took ‘the MTB day out route’ … which meant I was thoroughly beaten by Lucy and many others! I know I can make really good strategic decisions (like in Edale a couple of months ago), but sometimes one iffy decision near the start can throw it all way off.
I was a bit disgruntled about my poor choices, but I had enjoyed the day out anyway 🙂 I was also super-fast in transition! Back to my mum’s with a fine piece of fruit cake in hand before a trip to Wales for a recce of a large portion of the UTS50. It’s my next race and has been my main focus for a few months!
As always, thanks to everyone involved for more great racing this winter.
* I think is what you’re supposed to do, and don’t worry – I was credited with these points later!
This one was the race I should have done when The Beast came and dumped snow on us instead. Fortunately, I was still able to make the new date and Damien stepped in to get me there when it turned out my lift couldn’t! We even managed to safely negotiate the clock change and arrive in very good time, if still a little bleary-eyed.
For my warm up I went and investigated the tricky singletrack section at the end of the bike leg, which I remembered from last time I did this race. Hmm, I did not do a great job, though I did see which bits I was likely to have to jump off and run down!
The start of the race was a bit of a jostle and I felt like hoards of people just whizzed away from me up the hill, which affected my confidence. All I could do was keep working at it and keep Caroline (my series rival!) in sight. Sure enough, I eventually came past her as the hill went up and up.
A flattish, bumpy and wet puddly section followed, and I hesitated as a guy came through and cut me up. I was trying to keep pedalling hard when Caroline retook the lead! More hills followed – she pulled away as I had to walk, I caught up as she walked … We entered the top of the singletrack together, which I knew was not to my advantage 😀
As she disappeared I walked / ran / scooted and sometimes even pedalled, although I also fell sideways at one point. My best moment on this part was actually riding the final corner and tree roots after working out the best line in warm up. I nearly skidded on my cleat at the dismount line and transition seemed to take forever as I fumbled into my running shoes.
I thought Caroline would be long gone, and indeed she had gained over a minute on that tricky bike section. Skills pay off! However, we were wearing matching coloured tops and I caught fleeting glimpses of her through the trees up ahead. I was trying to go fast but my shins started screaming at me. I wanted to sort of relax my legs but it was impossible, going uphill and working hard over the terrain!
The run route on this race is an out and back. We turned into the twisting uphill section through the trees and I could see no one. But when we popped out, there she was again. I think I even started gaining just a little bit to the turn and back down …
But then returning to the trees she knew where her strengths lay (on foot, as on bike!) and when we emerged she was well out of sight. I think she must have hurdled the logs I clambered over! I only saw her once more, far in the distance, so instead I focused on beating the guy I’d been going back and forth with for a while!
2nd female and 2nd in the series to Caroline, who played it smart and was better on the technical terrain than I!
I had a jolly time and was pleased to have entered again this year. Now just an Open 5 to go before all focus turns to my first big race of the year – my second ultra – 80km up and down mountains in Snowdonia. Can’t wait!
Falkirk – 24th February
Having enthusiastically ‘warmed up’ to cross country, I signed up for the Scottish nationals. They were easy to get to (Falkirk- trains every 15 minutes) and, even better, were 10km long and the same distance for men and women.
The day was bright, dry and sunny. I got there early and had time to potter a bit, peer at the map and jog a lap of the three lap course. It was mostly firm and grassy, with the occasional muddy patch and one or two little steep hills. Apparently this was very benign conditions compared to some other years!
A mass start saw everyone charge up the first hill. Someone who clearly knew me said something as she passed but I didn’t catch it! (turned out it was my friend Grace). Other members of the club were also cheering on corners which was most encouraging. As we went on, I started to pass people, each time focusing on the next person up ahead.
After 1.5 laps I fixed my gaze on a small group in front who were gradually getting closer. I decided if I was able to reach them and then hold position, I’d be happy! Someone yelled out that I was looking really strong, which made me feel great and sure enough I then caught and passed the little group.
We were now two laps in, but suddenly I felt a bit fuzzy wuzzy and knew I was pushing it just slightly too hard! The only solution was to back off a touch and hope the people behind didn’t notice… They noticed!! I was overtaken again but was getting over my wobble.
Final lap done and dusted and a strong sprint finish saw me finish in 63rd place (out of 271) and a time of 46:04 mins (I recorded the course a little long at 10.5km). Results. Pretty happy with that and think I’ll do a few more next year 🙂
Foxtrail 13km – 10th March
A couple of weeks later and the Beast from the East had been and scattered races in its wake. Andy was heading to the final Foxtrail race of their winter series, a 13km based at Foxlake. I had been due to spectate the first time round as it was the day before a race of my own. However, now I was heading over at a loose end and managed to get a last minute entry.
The weather was no longer white and snowy, but raining and windy! We all huddled shivering at the start, though the fun warm up got us all moving. I did a few of these last year, my best position being 5th, and that in the much longer events. However, as Nicola Duncan sprinted off, I found myself next to two other girls. I passed one of them on a twisting trail through the woods and was working hard to keep up with the other.
I had checked the course map beforehand and had a rough idea where we were going. Unusually, the wind was coming from the east, which meant we had a headwind most of the way out and a tailwind on the way back. I stuck behind this girl (I found out later that her name was Claire), getting as much shelter as I could. I was working a bit harder than I might have chosen, but decided it was worth it to hang on as long as I could. It turns out that her pace was strong and consistent. We steadily caught other runners as we made our way out along the course.
At some point she pulled aside to encourage me to pass, but I genuinely didn’t have the energy to do so! We met a couple of other guys and ran with them instead, turning round a field at the far end and retracing our steps over the bridge I hit my shin on during some other race … The memory of the pain still made me wince!
Now we had a tailwind and I tried to relax. I did eventually pass Claire and encouraged her to stay with me. Through some dunes, rising and falling before turning into the woods. At this point I could hear two girl’s voices behind me, so I knew I had not opened a significant gap. Then Nicola ran past! She had gone the wrong way and just come back on track. I thought I should call out and let her know she was back in the lead, but I had no breath and by then she was too far ahead to hear.
I kept working and really loved the section where the route followed a narrow and winding little path along the edge of the coast. I was nimble and my shoes were perfect for gripping the sheen of mud. I knew the course turned back on itself at the far end and was bracing myself for the return of the headwind, this time on my own 😉 What I didn’t know was that it would be on a rough and squidgy track, recently churned up by a farm vehicle!
As I took the final bend into the woods, I glanced over my shoulder. I seemed to be clear of other runners and enjoyed the last stretch to the finish.
Couldn’t believe I had managed to place 2nd female / 8th overall. Results. A lot of people hadn’t been able to make the rearranged date, so I thought I had just been lucky with who had been able to turn up. But my pace was only a touch slower than that at the XC and when I compared my time to the first 13k in the series it was still pretty good. Think I just love racing when the weather is ‘bad’!
I quickly showered and got changed into all my warm, dry clothes. I just missed Andy finishing, but hadn’t wanted to risk getting a chill. A hot cup of tea and prize giving later, and we were back on the bikes and pedalling for the train back to Edinburgh and a large café lunch 🙂
Thanks to those who took photos – from the Edinburgh AC photostream, Andy, a friend of someone at the Foxtrail race and me!