I’ve been properly aware of Marmot Dark Mountains since Lucy raced it with Bruce in preparation for an expedition race. It caught my imagination because, well, why wouldn’t an overnight winter race that sounded wild and tough and difficult?!
After a successful day out at the Tour de Helvellyn, I was feeling confident in my running abilities. Having missed the Open 5 with Lucy I thought I might be able to persuade her to do this instead … after a few weeks debate and body-testing it was a reluctant no (pneumonia is tough).
It was only a week or so until the closing date, but I had nothing to lose so asked Jon if he was free and fancied it. He was and he did. Yes! Oh, but they had sold out that very day! A quick email to the organisers and they were able to slot us on to our first course choice (after some deliberation) of ‘long score’.
This event is an overnight mountain marathon, with ‘linear’ courses graded C to Elite (get the specified controls in order as fast you can, with increasing length, ascent and difficulty of control placings) and two ‘score’ courses short / 8h and long / 10h (all controls have points, get as many points as you can before your time runs out).
After a number of email exchanges covering kit (extensive list designed to keep you safe should you get stranded), logistics and navigation skills it was very quickly time to head south. I met Jon near the bypass at the shop selling practically all the kit you might need for this race. I invested in a new compass as mine had gone wonky twice and I didn’t trust it. Gutted to see the same one selling for £6 less at the event centre!
At race HQ, registration was super slick and we were soon sat scoffing a bowlful of Wilf’s veggie chilli. A pair next to us asked if we had come from Edinburgh – ‘yes’ I said, surprised – ‘oh we saw you crossing the road earlier’ they replied!
We had blank copies of the maps on the table and spent some time poring over them. It was good for me as they were Harvey’s and I’m not used to them. The routes through some out of bounds areas were also worth taking a close look at before we got tired. I remarked that without place names we wouldn’t get sucked into going to places with silly / amusing monikers, plus we’d have to get creative when talking about where we were going. A chap at our table suggested we could use grid references … hmm … safe to say that during the race we stuck to things like ‘shall we take a bearing to the purple line just under that number 4?’
Before we knew it, I was squeezing in last second toilet trips and rushing to get to the line. Everyone sets off at short intervals with their own personalised start time. We were 21:04. Straight up the road for a couple of kilometres, we came up with a rough strategy on the move. We then sped on, overtaking a few other teams.
Even the first control was a learning experience for me, as we debated the best way to approach a control in a stream re-entrant. As we left the footpath (the last one we’d see for a while), I was anxious about how we’d know we had gone far enough and whether we’d be sure we had passed the stream junction … but Jon was talking about steepening sides and was powering on. Next thing I knew, there it was right in front of us.
The next control was on a compass bearing contouring round the hill. This could no longer be classed as running. I counted my paces and just as I thought we should be there, we came across the re-entrant. We were a little too low, but we expected it as the slope had kept pulling us off the bearing in that direction. My confidence was buoyed!
The pattern was set for the rest of the event as I stumbled and tripped over the knee high heather. When it wasn’t heathery it was boggy, there were wet reeds or we were clambering up and down peat hags. I was longing for some of the ‘useful’ sheep tracks mentioned in the pre-race ecological briefing notes but I never saw one! These notes were also detailed in their descriptions of different kinds of vegetation and their relative merits for running. We debated whether we were encountering blanket bogs or the wet acid grassland and wondered where the mythical ‘dry’ acid grassland was 😀
At midnight we both had a slump, trudging through more wet ground. I made myself eat and drink to counter the effects. We got to a gate next to some woods, which is what we were looking for. But something didn’t feel right. The fence was at an unexpected angle. Our doziness was having an effect as we stood there for ages pondering. If we were wrong, we risked going into an out of bounds area and I was determined not to do that. Eventually it dawned on us that there was a second small block of trees marked, slightly obscured by the over printed purple out of bounds colouring. This fitted, we followed the fence and got to the right gate. But looking at the map later there was a much quicker route for the whole section using a road – this was our worst glitch as we took over 30 minutes to cover one km!!
As is often the case on a race as long as this though, we started to perk up again. Next notable call was the manned checkpoint, where someone exceedingly cheery greeted us and offered us port. Port?! I was taken aback and nearly said yes, until I saw Jon shaking his head and saying best not … no, no, of course not, one shouldn’t be drinking alcohol mid race! 😀 Off we went into more thigh deep bogs.
In the dark you can’t see what you’re heading for. We had to work hard to look at the features we could see – the steepness of the ground beneath us, the shape of the hills in the dark sky when we switched our torches off, the peat hags. And sometimes other things gave us clues, like the sound of unseen trees rustling in the wind ahead.
We had a string of fun controls. The moon was out as we visited a knoll, a trig point and the base of some crags. It was still dry, but the wind was blowing hard. If you paused to look around you could see bright dots of white light flung far and wide across the hillsides. It was quite surreal wondering if we had come from ‘over there’ but really having no idea as my frame of reference was never more than next 1 or 2 km.
Other teams were coming and going around us. Sometimes it seemed we were being followed then they’d all disappear and we’d feel totally alone. As we were all on different courses, we were all doing different things. I fell more than once in the heather, but it was always a soft landing. One time my left leg disappeared down a hole, leaving me to do a massive leg press to get out again! Jon helped pull me across streams that were a little too wide, or up banks a little too high.
It started raining just as we ran to a fence and turned left looking for a gate. We got to a bend, paused and realised we had to run back – our gate had been right next to us before and we hadn’t seen it! We’d probably been distracted by other teams around us. This was a small but somewhat annoying mistake, as we nipped through then ran straight back to the same bend but on the other side!
The rain was getting persistent, we were going downhill and I was cold despite having thrown on my waterproof. I pulled my hood up and the sounds of raindrops pattering on my head reminded me of being snug in a tent in bad weather. The peat hags slowed us even more. We visited a massive tower, made amusing by the fact we couldn’t see its hulking form until we almost ran into it!
We had to be careful finding a small ruined structure on a hillside. Jon turned to ask if we could run this bit and I laughed, saying this was my run right now. It was a pathetic attempt, not helped by the fact I was bursting for a wee. I just needed to find a bit of shelter … The ruin didn’t offer much protection but I took what there was. The relief was immense, though it was odd contemplating life peeing on a dark hillside in the middle of the night with the rain cold on my bare skin.
I was debating whether to faff around getting my waterproof trousers or other clothes out. But we’d already been stopped a while for my comfort break so thought I’d get going again before deciding. As we ran off I asked Jon if he knew where we were heading. He said we’d sort it out as we went … odd … turned out later he just wanted to get me moving and warmed up! Fortunately, we had to go uphill and now I could run properly without painfully jolting my bladder. These two factors combined to warm me up nicely.
We had all been warned about the dangers of hypothermia before the event. Look out for fumbles, mumbles, grumbles and stumbles – oh how we laughed about that one several times during the night as one of us tripped again or fell too deep into a bog (I’m sure I heard some muttered profanities)! Luckily, apart from a few shivers, my worst state came when I realised I wasn’t really capable of counting out 100 steps any more without losing track, which I solved by throwing in another few handfuls of food.
We had an interesting few moments looking for a river junction. We thought we might have missed it and Jon’s altimeter suggested we’d gone too high on the wrong fork. We decided to test if we had gone wrong and pace 100m on a bearing to our right. If we were correct, we should hit the other stream – remarkably we did, and it wasn’t long until we got to the control. High fives for quick and accurate correction!
We were running out of time and had to make some choices. In retrospect and looking at the teams ahead of us in the results, we should have left some earlier controls to leave time for the better value ones we were now dropping. We decided to head down the hill for a 50 pointer and for the first time in many hours, follow a track / path back out again. I had been over on my ankle 3 or 4 times and it was sore with every step so I had to protect it and be careful. I felt bad as I was holding us up, but couldn’t risk making myself immobile.
We ascended a rough, peaty and very wet bridleway and joked about trying to ride it. I thought it looked vaguely familiar but dismissed the thought as silly. Looking at the map later, I realised Lucy and I had indeed ridden down it in an Open 5 some time ago!
I had been checking bearings and the map, but now abandoned that and just focussed on keeping up. We had one last control to fit in then we were out of there. We ran to the fence, hesitated turned left, nooo, it should have been right! Back we went, got to the path and it was not as fast as we hoped. Then we hit the road and it was time to SMASH IT. My ankle was absolutely fine on this lovely flat surface and I was going for it. Now Jon had to keep up with me as we did two sub-5 minute km, rounded the corner and dibbed 14.5 minutes late.
The penalties really start ramping up at 15 minutes, so I was pretty pleased we had made it. Into the hall and we could see we had finished 10th overall / 3rd mixed pair. Full results here. We were close to 2nd, but the winners were well ahead. Return to the car, quick change, back to hall for hot breakfast and prize giving. Cheers and applause for the organisers, volunteers and all the winners.
This was my first mountain marathon and what an introduction it was! I was glad to have someone who I know I can trust with me (in fact, it is part of the entry requirements that one of the pair must have experience in similar events, including day time events at the level up). I learnt so much about the navigation, really putting to use and relying on techniques that I’d only previously known the theory of. 10h was plenty of time to practise and get it right!
I liked being on the score course and there was no danger of it turning into a procession of follow-the-leader. There wasn’t much chance to enjoy the scenery or have any great appreciation of where we were (other than being in wild countryside!), but I loved the challenge and the experience. Short video recap:
The high retirement rates and lengthy race times on even the ‘easier’ linear courses left me wondering. We had almost gone with A and I might have done elite with Lucy. Would I have been capable? I thought probably so, given the distance we covered, but maybe that is a question to answer another year! Race director’s report here.
We had a nap, drove to Tebay, ate some more stodge, got halfway home, had another nap. I was dropped off, came straight in for another nap. Then I was informed by Andy that I smelled like a farmyard and had to get in the shower … I did as I was told!
Along with a resolution to get back to training sessions with the running club, I had paid my membership fees for both Edinburgh AC and Scottish Athletics last year, with a view to doing the occasional race. The club is big and successful and I wanted to feel like part of a team. Finally an opportunity came round – an XC race on a day when I wasn’t somewhere else in the country doing some other event…
I duly signed up for the 3rd and final race in the East District League, plus the Scottish Masters – oh yes, I just sneaked into the age category for that one 🙂
The first was at Broxburn. I was picked up and off we went, with the amount of snow increasing the further west we drove. The day was gloriously sunny and the course covered in the white stuff. We didn’t have a lot of time, and after faffing to park the car, go to the toilet, find the start, get a number … there was not a lot of time for warm up. Instead of doing a full lap I ended up doing half a one and sprinting back to throw off final clothes and line up.
The start was fast and furious, with lots of jostling of elbows. I went out much too enthusiastically and after about a km felt like I had made a mistake. I slowed down and tried to regain control, though it was difficult with constantly changing terrain, level of snow compaction and mini hills! I started to feel slightly better, though these things are all relative. Round we went on lap 2. Halfway I thought I was going to be sick and I was willing it to all end. But I couldn’t just stop, so I pushed on! Never been so glad to see the finish line – 36th and just about counting for the club’s vet team.
This was my first XC race since university, so it had been a long time. I was shocked how tired I was for the rest of the day, despite running less than 6km. What a workout, but it was fun, honest!
So much so, that two weeks later I was in Kilmarnock for the Scottish Masters Championship. In between I went and raced for 10 hours overnight on a wild hillside, but that story will have to wait until my next post. I was also rather well stuffed with Polish perogi the night before, which I was hoping would turn out to be some sort of rocket fuel.
I entered this to make up numbers for the W40 category – three to count. Sadly one got sick in the morning and couldn’t make it. This meant no team for us as, despite having four W50s, we couldn’t nominate one of them to run down a category.
Well, I was there now, so I might as well go for it! Learning from last time, I was a bit more conservative at the start. We all settled down after a km and positions didn’t change much after that. After the delights of the snow in Broxburn, this time we had gloopy mud and a grassy field that sucked your feet in ankle deep. There was also a steep climb and my favourite section twisting through some trees.
Two laps again. My legs were heavy and I had thoughts going through my head that I wasn’t recovered after the previous weekend, and what about tomorrow when I had another race lined up. Nothing I could do though, so I ploughed on. This time I was comfortable charging into the finish straight, buoyed by the shouts of some of my clubmates. Or maybe not, as afterwards I felt queasy again and had difficulty breathing normally! 17th, which I thought sounded quite good, until I remembered that I was practically the youngest there 😀
Jenny came 4th overall and the W50 team (Jill, Sue and Karen) did brilliantly, easily winning the team prize for their category. W40 – well, we need to get more people out next time because we had potential! The event was really well organised by Kilmarnock Harriers and the course was interesting, so I’d go back.
Thanks to all involved – host clubs, Enid and Karen for organising the teams and entries, Richard for the tiffin that got sent over in his absence and tasted fantastic, the people who gave me lifts, all the other athletes who cheered, photographers and Alex for making sure I did not do too much on Thursday! I’m sure it must be good for me somehow, I might do one again 😉
I decided that it was time for me to do my first ultra. A longer than marathon length run, without any extra sports mixed in to break it up. My theory was that winter would be a good time. It would be clear of swimrun training / racing, I could put my feet up for a break over Christmas and with a bit of luck we’d get some epic weather!
After a lot of searching for events that met my criteria, I settled on the Tour de Helvellyn. Run by Joe Faulkner / Nav4, who I know from adventure racing, it’s 60km over hills in the Lake District, with no route marking plus limited and not guaranteed feed stations. Perfect!
I spent a lot of time preparing for this one as it was my main target for the winter.
- Quickly realised I’d need a bigger race vest bag to carry all the kit. Impulse bought one when spending a voucher on something else.
- Tested bag and all kit on a long run round the city when the sun was still shining and I could wear shorts and t-shirt. You never know when you might need a survival bag and heavy duty waterproof.
- Got zip fixed on my primaloft jacket after over a year, so I could take and use it as an emergency layer.
- Read a lot of other people’s blogs!
- Bought two new pairs of possible shoes and got them broken in, after discovering the upper was about to part company with the sole on my both my old pairs.
- Weekend trip to recce the lollipop part of the route with Izzy and Elizabeth. This also served as one of a couple of long days out on my feet.
- Found out my compass didn’t point north any more. Fixed it by waving it at a strong magnet.
- Designed a version of the map that got the whole route onto two A3 sides at 1:25k and arranged to get it printed onto a single sheet of waterproof paper. Thanks Paul!
- Every good race deserves a spreadsheet. On this one I calculated slow, likely and fast paces, working out when it was best to start to make the most of the daylight, arrive at the first checkpoint within the specified time window and not miss the final cut off.
- Decided last minute to recce ‘stick’ part of route on mountain bike the week before. Investigated the footpath/ road shortcut option which is reputedly possibly maybe faster than going round the bridleway.
- For the first time in ages, cooked two types of feed zone portable, after thinking about the fact I couldn’t last 9+h on flapjacks and honey stingers.
All that was left was to negotiate the work Christmas lunch, a very busy train and possibly icy roads to get to the start / community hall in good time on Friday night.
It was a little bit daunting to arrive at the hall and not really know very many people. However, I soon found I was sleeping two along from someone I had met at a swimrun and then Steve who is a friend of mine from Open 5s popped up! I felt better already. I set up the old-skool campbed that Izzy had lent me, feeling a bit daft in amongst all the high tech kit. However, I did not feel so daft after a comfortable nights’ sleep!
We were advised it was ‘lights on’ at 6am, so I was duly awakened and served porridge, toast and … I hesitated over the tea then declined, knowing it would cause frequent pee stops if I did! The most difficult decision of the morning was which shoes to wear … Inov8s that are good on wet muddy stuff, or my Icebugs which I thought would be better on ice but have little by way of cushioning and can give me sore feet on stony surfaces. Reports were of ice aplenty, so I went with the latter.
I was warned there could be queues for kit check, but maybe they had more people on it this year, as there were none at all. I stuck to my plan and headed in to get looked over a few minutes before 7:45. They were very good and it wasn’t too difficult to wiggle everything back into the bag again afterwards.
Headtorch on and off I went. It was snowing. This wasn’t in the forecast! After about 10 minutes I realised it was light enough not to need my torch and switched it off. There were not many people around as I headed up the hill and onto the moors. I think the ground was more frozen solid than the previous week when I had recced this part, but there was less sheet ice. I was confident in my route to the Cockpit, then headed down across the hillside towards Ullswater.
The Cockpit to Side Farm – outward ‘stick’ – everything under control
A few people overtook me on the moors, including a lady running with another chap. It turned out we were going almost the same speed. I said hello but they weren’t much for talking, even as we passed and re-passed each other a few times over the next 10km or so.
I took what I had decided was definitely the shorter route on a footpath down to the lake and up the road. A number of people around me did the same, although looking up to the hillside on our left I could see crowds who had stuck to the bridleway. I was in good spirits at Martindale church, the first checkpoint, as I made sure to eat something and kept a good pace on the road section.
Soon enough I was at the ascent to Boredale Hause. I kept running here for as long as I could, and when forced to walk I ate some more and powered my way to the top. There were lots of people around now, as everyone was converging on the next checkpoint which had a fixed opening time. At the top, everyone headed a different way to the one I had checked out with Izzy. I debated what to do but in the end followed them. It looked more direct – and it was.
We re-joined the bridleway I was expecting, where several people skipped down the rough descent, overtaking me with ease. I tried to stay cool. When Nicky Spinks glided past, I was trying to copy her style! Soon at Side Farm, first food checkpoint. It opened at 9:30 and I got there at 9:35 – perfect! I grabbed some crisps, malt loaf and satsuma and headed straight out again. Along through Glenridding and Nicky and her friend were still in sight for quite a while.
Side Farm up and over to the other valley – first half of lollipop – what a lot of snow / wish I could descend more proficiently
Up the hill past the YHA and I knew I had run most of this with Izzy on legs more tired than these, so I kept running! As we reached the end of the road, there were plenty of people around carrying skis. I mean, there was a bit of snow, but I was astonished they thought they could ski on this? When we had run here earlier in the year, Elizabeth asked if in the race I would do the zig zags or cut the corners. I had answered that it probably depended what everyone else was doing. They were cutting the corners.
It didn’t look too bad so I followed. At one point I wasn’t sure if the path went left or right (it was covered in snow), but everyone was going right. I went with them, but was soon wondering why, as other racers were on the main path above us and we were scrambling up a snow-covered boulder-strewn hillside. I concentrated on putting my feet in the same places the person in front had marked out and tried not to dwell on the fact that I wished I had gone the other way! It was with some relief that we re-joined the path.
Swart Beck footbridge came quickly, a picture perfect winter scene of white snow. Now I understood the skis! I was very glad I was not the first to come through, because it meant I could follow the trodden path in front and avoid any very deep snowdrifts! A few more passed me, including a very fast and cheerful girl in a running skirt. I couldn’t stay with them at all and just tried to hold my own pace. I realised I was well down the women’s field and decided this meant I could find time to take a couple of pictures to capture the experience!
Over Sticks Pass it was cold and white with a dense fog. Not windy though, so it could have been worse! The long descent was nothing like the recce. This time it was a race through soft snow. Others were still braver than me, even though I told myself any fall would have a soft landing. Emerging from the fog and dipping below the snowline, we were on one of the steepest parts. I cursed as I fell several times, once almost attempting the splits. Streams of people came past me and it was rather demoralising. I thought this was just everyone I had managed to overtake earlier on the hills, but in retrospect a large portion were probably faster runners who had started later than me and were catching up.
I was relieved to get to the fingerpost at the bottom in one piece and turned left to make my way along the valley. This path was rough and stony. We had pondered race tactics here before and noted that it would be easy to expend a lot of energy trying to go fast. I kept a lid on it and concentrated on not having an unpleasant fall. There was someone behind me who decided to do the same. It was actually quite good to have their footsteps urging me on a little, but agreeing that their toes kept catching and tripping on things too!
Swirls car park to Side Farm – second half of lollipop – I am in love with ultra-running
Arriving at the car park I was disappointed that the toilets were shut (though this was one of the few chances to nip behind something) and surprised to find a feed station. I stocked up on handfuls of food again and walked the first hilly parts of the fireroad eating and drinking whilst it was easy to do so. I also tucked into some of my own savoury snacks. Then it was time to run. I made good time along here once my legs got going and before I knew it, I was at the waterfall and ready to start the next climb.
Here there was another route choice – to cut across open hillside or follow the path along to the river then turn left. I stuck to my plan and smiled to myself as the two other runners who had stopped to think about it also followed me. We could see someone cutting across, but I decided this time I was not going to be influenced. I was glad of it, as it was easy running on the path, the river was straightforward to cross at the bottom and I was soon on the path heading up the other side of Raise Beck.
At this stage I was feeling fantastic. I spotted Santa up ahead taking photos and I was leading a group of people who had passed me in the woods earlier on. At the top I tried to pick up the main path instead of landing up in bog around Grisedale Tarn. However, I soon got confused and found myself romping across fresh snow, in the right general direction, but certainly not on a footpath! Suddenly I felt my left leg sink … right up the full length of it, with my foot at the bottom in something very cold and wet! Eek! A runner called out if I was OK … I was and managed to hoik myself out. “Are you on the path?!” I yelled. He was, and I hastily made my way up there.
I took the next descent down Grisedale a little carefully due to ice, but again was spurred on by someone else who was running just behind me. I recognised the places we had stopped and chatted on our recce and was thinking about how much I LOVED this ultra-running thing. I planned to eat again when we hit the wide easy track at the bottom. Despite finding myself on some little path with the main one below me (how was it possible to drift off it? I have no idea) I soon dropped back down and got munching and into a good rhythm.
In my head I was thinking ‘two more checkpoints, two more small-ish hills. That’s all, and you’ve just passed marathon distance!’ I kept up running all the way into the return checkpoint at Side Farm, avoiding looking at the short but steep climb to Boredale Hause ahead. More snacks taken and I decided to top up my water a bit too. I had probably only drunk about a litre and still had some left but thought it worth the precaution, especially once I had gone to the trouble of fishing my drinks bladder out to check.
Side Farm to Cockpit – return ‘stick’ – body in meltdown
I was feeling chirpy as I headed out and up the hill, despite being overtaken by a handful of faster runners. I followed the same plan as before, walking and eating and choking on a stray grain of rice … then halfway up something bad happened. I don’t know what. I just felt weak, so tired. I was at about 45.5km. I thought it would be fine after the hill. As we crested the top my head told me to start running again, the gradient was easy, but my body refused. We got to the descent and my legs felt like jelly and not entirely under my control. It was tricky and I slipped and fell. I had to let two guys go away as I tip-toed down. Soon enough it flattened a little and became grassy.
I did a quick self-assessment. I felt too hot, my legs hurt, I wasn’t quite with it. I took action in the only ways I know how! A buff was snatched off my head. I ate a gel and a packet of honey stingers (reasoning that I had run low on energy coming over the last big hill and that the food at Side Farm wasn’t sugary enough to have kicked in yet). I slowed down a touch to let my body recover. I drank (I didn’t think I would be dehydrated in this weather, but knowing me, it was entirely possible). As another couple of people passed I exchanged a few words. “How are you?” they asked. “I’m in a dip” I answered. Off they ran. We had a long road section and I worked hard to keep moving and keep the gaps from widening. We got to Martindale and I was on the home stretch. ‘Only’ an hour or so from here! “Are we nearly there yet?” I joked with the marshals, hmm, I’m sure they heard that one a hundred times that day!
Cutting across the zigzags of the road, I paused to admire the view. It was quite stunning, with the sky pinkish from the low sun, and the hills reflected in the still waters of the lake. At the bottom I ran along the road feeling heavy. I had words with myself. If I ran like I felt, I would feel like that and worse. I tried to make myself run ‘properly’, nice and tall with some zing, in the hope it would lift my mood!
Up the footpath and back onto the bridleway. Now I started the mind games. 8km to go. Just like a lunchtime run at work with Neil and Jonah. I imagined what we’d be talking about; parkruns and races or gender identity and workplace confidence (!). 5km to go, just a parkrun. 3.5km to go, just the final run at Ötillö with Izzy by my side. 2.5km to go, just a run along the esplanade at Silverknowes. I made myself run the sections I knew I had ridden up the previous week. I ticked off the landmarks and promised myself more Honey Stingers at various points. I drank and drank, glad I had topped up after all. Somewhere near the top, I recovered…
The Cockpit to Askham – yippee!!
Suddenly I felt alive again! There was no one in sight in front or behind but I was happy in my own world again. I was running along familiar ground, and it was still light. I knew I would make it back well inside my target time despite the wobble. I took a slightly delirious selfie and charged down the hill and into the village. I realised I hadn’t checked which door the finish was at, but guessed correctly that it was the same one I had come out of. I ran round the corner. I tripped on the steps and crashed into a shut door. Joe opened it, looking bemused, and directed me to the table inside so that my number could be scanned for the final time. That was it! I had finished!
I wandered into the hall in a daze. The hall was hot and packed with runners, all doing their own thing, tucking into food and oblivious to me. I missed the feeling of finishing with a friend who has shared the same experience. I felt a few tears well up in my eyes, all emotional from the effort, but blinked them back and texted my coach and boyfriend instead. I could hardly move my legs, let alone climb the steps to the stage to retrieve my change of clothes. Luckily I had been organised and was able to get my stuff with minimum faff, shower, change and sit down. What bliss! Sitting down!
I chatted with a few people and settled down to wait for Steve. At some point tables were cleared and I was able to set up my camp bed. My sleeping bag was so soft and snuggly. I nearly fell asleep at 19:30 (utterly unheard of for me). Just after 20:30 in came Steve, to a big cheer as part of the last group to make it and not get cut off. Hurrah!
I finished in 8h24, inside my target of 9h. I was 9th female, 50th overall. Results here. I pondered if I had got my pacing wrong at the start, but I know I’m usually so good at this, and you’ve got to learn sometime! My split placings were fairly consistent. I don’t regret setting off with conviction as I did, even if I was slower coming back. I did also recover the situation when I blew up. Despite being mindful of eating frequently, it seems I should do it even more, as well as drinking more too. All in all, I decided I hadn’t done too bad for my ‘first ultra without any handy swimming breaks’. Post-race damage seems to be limited to general exhaustion (caught the bus to work for a week), sore legs, the skin off one heal and one bruised toenail. But I’ll wait to see how quick I properly recover before fully committing to another!
Many thanks to Joe and team at Nav4 for the race, to all the photographers (donation made to Patterdale Mountain rescue), to Steve for taking me back to the station and my fellow racers John and Hisayo for company for 3h as we waited for the first trains out of Penrith!
Race three of five in my pre-Christmas splurge was the Foxtrail night ultra, which we entered as a 3-person relay team. After first persuading Izzy, Marie got the call. And after convincing her that it was not an all-nighter and was not on Sunday, she was in!
The race course was 4.9km laps on trails in the dark. Some people were doing it solo, but I am saving my first ultra to be a big loop instead of many little ones! We arrived in good time and got set up in the start / finish / handover / party marquee. The plan was to start on single laps, monitor our pace and adjust as necessary. The goal was to finish 15 laps within the 6h time limit, so that we could fit in a final 16th lap. There was no published start list, so although I knew we had a dream team, I did not have a sense of whether it was dreamy enough to be gunning for the win!
We decided to go off in descending speed order, which meant Marie started. I knew she’d enjoy the bustle of elbowing her way through in the mass start! I warmed up and waited anxiously at the handover. In she came, in a fast time and second lady. I flew off and soon caught the other female team in the woods. Up ahead I could see my friend Neil, who had joined a male team at the last minute. He was wearing something luminous and easy to spot! I couldn’t catch him, but was pleased to see him as he can run a straight 5km a lot faster than I can …
Handover to Izzy who was ready and waiting; that set the pattern for the rest of the night. I had set up a spreadsheet to check our progress and make sure we were on target. Everything was going to plan, so I couldn’t be happier 😀 In between laps I updated the numbers, ate, chatted and made sure Marie was ready to go. She always was, despite her tendency to suddenly undress or run to the toilet 3 minutes before Izzy was due back!
I knew my first lap speed was unsustainable. The second felt better, but I dropped more time again on every lap (about 5s/km on average every time). That was a bit disappointing, but I realised others were dropping more. We got an update after 6 laps and we were leading the women’s field! This brought a beam to my face. On lap 3 I overhauled Neil just after I whooped my way through the mid-lap DJ rave barn. I wondered if I’d regret it, but didn’t – our pacing was better and we finished a lap ahead of their team 😉
It was not as cold as it might have been (well above freezing) and the forecast rain was little more than light showers. This meant I survived by throwing on a big coat between laps and getting progressively stinkier in the same running kit …
Lap 4 was painful although I overtook a couple of other relay runners, including internet / Newcastle Glenn who seemed to have breath to chat to another runner! We were, of course, lapping the solo runners at regular intervals. I felt a bit bad to be speeding past knowing I was doing a fraction of what they were, but everyone was so polite. Some said well done and I’m sorry I had little more in me than to grunt a reply.
At some point I knew that barring any disasters, we were safe for getting in 15 laps before the final fireworks. However, I offered to Izzy that she could do 4 laps and I’d do 6 if she preferred (Marie was already lined up to do 6!). She gamely decided to go for the full house. So I set off on my 5th with an all-out last effort.
I was rewarded with a stitch, nausea and a final time slower again than lap 4!! After that I was rather relieved not to have another one to go, and managed to shower and change whilst Izzy ran her last lap. We yelled Marie out, grabbed some food, admired the firework display and waited for the finish! Great sprint into the tent.
All our efforts were rewarded with 1st female team and 5th overall, as the last team to squeeze in 16 laps. Event video here! I had a jolly old time and still had energy to chat to Marie on the way back to Edinburgh. I’m a night-time sort of person. Next morning I dragged myself out of bed to meet for a sea swim and extended cafe stop – a delayed reward from the night before! Mind you, I was exhausted by then. Turns out doing 5 x 5km intervals is harder than it looks on paper.
A great race which I am sure will be back on the calendar again next year. Thanks to Foxtrail for organising, Bob Marshall and Andy Kirkland for photos, my team mates for being awesome and all the other racers for the friendly vibe.
I was surprised to find it was 2014 when I last did this race, but when we arrived it was like I’d never been away. Four of us went over in one car; three racers and one supporter / photographer! We were nice and early, which suited me as we got parked near the start and I had time to go out and ride my bike.
Even though this race starts with a run, I decided my time was better spent riding round the bike course. My heart would get going and my brain would get in tune with the course. I was glad I did as it was quite technical, especially in the first half. Knowing what was coming up and that I could ride it gave me more confidence later.
We all gathered at the start line, the hooter went and we all shot off up the hill. I was breathing hard but moved from 5th to 2nd girl. 1st was Isla, out of sight and never to be seen again until prize giving! After that effort, I was overtaken on the up and on the down so I was back to 4th! This route goes straight up a hill and straight down a hill, with plenty of gloopy muddy bits. I was slightly out of control on the downhill, but was really trying to do my best to stay in contact.
I think I was a bit slow trying to sort my bike gloves out, and by the time I left transition there was no sight of the other girls. I powered on anyway. People were flying past me, but then a train of us got stuck behind a slightly slower rider. I kept my cool and concentrated on using the saved energy to work hard on the uphills. This was the pattern: technical down: get overtaken. Straightforward up: overtake some of them back again.
First Jon came flying past with a shout, then Marc, who didn’t recognise me. I was keeping up with him, though he got away at the end. I fell on a very slidey bit, but landed on my feet and narrowly avoided causing a pile up behind me. I unexpectedly caught one of the girls, Sarah, who was dressed incognito in black (just like me!). This meant I didn’t realise it was her until I was alongside. I said hello and worked hard as I passed.
There was no sign at all of Caroline ahead in her turquoise top. Coming up the last hill, rounding the lake and preparing myself for the final steep sting in the tail, I thought I had 3rd, but worked it to the finish line. Turns out Caroline had taken significant time on me on the bike!
I couldn’t have worked any harder though, so I was satisfied. I’m not tuned up for this sort of crazy fast racing! 3.7km run, 6.4km bike and it was all over 😀 3rd female, 2nd vet, 1 box of chocolates and 1 bottle of beer.
Thanks to Paul / Durty Events for a seamless race with an amazing friendly vibe, Ewan for driving us over and Andy for most of the photos. Results here.
This was the first of four racing weekends in a row before Christmas! Next up: Foxtrail Nighttime 6h Ultra (Relay with the Dream Team).
Throughout the year, events pop up which catch my eye. I put them in the calendar as a reminder ‘just in case’ I get the opportunity to do one of them! So when we started discussing going to see my dad in November, I noticed ‘Coed y Brenin off-road duathlon‘ pencilled in…
It was decided, the visit planned and the race entered. It was organised by Always Aim High, whose triathlons I had a habit of doing a few years ago. They’ve grown a lot since then. This event was a new one and I thought it might be low key as a result. In fact, it nearly sold out!
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve made the effort to get out on my mountain bike, riding a few tricky trails on the way to work. I usually struggle finding my MTB groove for the winter, but was pleased to discover I was enjoying it straight away! After pondering over the maps in a bit more detail I realised that a lot of the bike course seemed to be on fire roads. I couldn’t decide if this was good as I wouldn’t have to stress about my riding skills, or bad because I would have to rely on some bike fitness and not just skills!
On race morning my tummy was churning with nerves. On the plus side, I had sorted out a rapidly deflating rear tyre just by tightening the valve core! After sorting out kit and racking my bike, the technical officials came over and asked if my handlebars came with the bar ends. No, I added them. Then they pronounced that they were ‘clip ons’, might skewer someone if there was a crash, and therefore not allowed. Panic! I’ve never touched them before, but grabbed my multitool from the seat pack and figured out how to get them off.
I was sure I had read the relevant rule beforehand and thought it didn’t apply. Numbers were being read out on the tannoy calling other offenders. I nipped back up to registration where I’d noticed the rule posted up earlier on. ‘No clip ons (aerobars) allowed, but standard bar ends authorised’. I ran back, queried the ruling, had a discussion and we concluded I could fit them back on again … After all that stress it was basically time to throw off my jacket and line up!
I looked over dressed compared to many athletes, with a long sleeved windproof and a little race pack. However, it kept raining, there was a northerly wind, and I wanted to stay hydrated and fuelled for a 3h race, not just a 9km run. After a friendly chat with a fast looking girl (who turned out to be the eventual winner) we were off; up, up and up! This was my first ever run-bike-run duathlon and I had Andy’s voice in my head telling me not to go too hard on the first run. I tried to keep a steady pace, even as I kept swapping places with the same guy.
There was a techy grassy wet downhill bit where I wished I had on Inov8s instead of Icebugs, a bouncy bridge, and more climbing to a feed station that I ignored, having sipped water all along and taken a gel on a climb. Another muddy rocky descent and then transition appeared sooner than I had expected. I raced in, stuffed down a banana, changed my bag along with my shoes and got out of there.
The bike was mostly straightforward. Annoyingly, one of my bar ends was now at the wrong angle, but I put it out of my mind. One guy elbowed past me on a narrow section at the start but then it was wide fire roads. My friend from the run came by with words of encouragement and onwards we climbed. I did spot a good view or two as well 🙂 . At one point we turned off, rode through some big puddles and up the first ‘technical’ section – a bit narrower and rocky. I enjoyed the power climb!
It was very quiet out on the bike, and I was pleased only a handful of other people came past. I must have hung on to some bike speed after all. The descents were fast and into the headwind; I was glad of that jacket now. I had got off at the entrance to the short section of trail centre singletrack, and as I rode out of it had to stop to straighten my mudguard. At this point a girl came alongside and we chatted a little as we climbed the steepest fireroad. At the top a guy was fumbling with a broken rear mech. She stopped to help and I hesitated, surprised. I thought I was in about 4th and she could have been racing for podium. I’d stop to help someone seriously injured or unwell, but take the view that you should be self sufficient for mechanicals. I pushed on.
Rounding the end of lap 1 and as I munched another banana, I caught someone I’d been drawing in on for a while and was surprised to find it was another girl! So now I thought I might be 3rd. Knowing what was coming up gave me more confidence and I powered away. I enjoyed some of the fast descents, really starting to get used to the bike and riding. I thought there might be issues passing lapped riders or people on the sprint course, but only met a few others.
Coming out of the singletrack, the same girl from before caught me in exactly the same place!! This time she said nothing and pulled away quickly. I kept my cool, rode hard and held the gap. Down the final descents and into another rocky section, I was catching back up. Just before the turn onto the final narrow section I was on her wheel. We were caught behind two slower sprint racers with another guy who had screeched in between us, but we all rode in line until the track widened up into transition. I dismounted and jogged up to my shoes, seeing everyone else walking. I had drunk well on the bike and didn’t need my bag for the final 5.3km run.
As I ran out, I heard announcements over the speakers welcoming back the full course leaders and several sprint racers. My laces were flapping and I paused to try and tuck them back in, decided it was a waste of time and ran on. I thought I had a running advantage over the girl who was near me, but didn’t want to take chances. Behind me I could hear steps and breathing. I was not alone. However, I was determined not to look back. I was going to run strong and fast out of every steep bit. I ate my gel and stayed calm. Someone was right on my shoulder, they were going to pass … but didn’t. Were those footsteps light enough to be a girl’s? I heard a cough and thought it could be … I still didn’t look back. At the feed station they stopped and I ran through. Just one long descent, skip over the stones and roots and run like I had done with someone breathing down my neck the first time. I sensed I had got a gap and I was going to hold it.
The final bend came into sight and we had to sprint up one more incline to the finish arch. Andy had made it back from his trip to a gold mine on time and informed me that I did not look strong and tall at that moment!! Cheeky, but the photos do not lie. I was still not sure of my place, but as we wandered off to the car I was called back to find out I was 3rd overall! Yay … It had indeed been a girl behind me – finishing with an 18s deficit in the end. I felt bad as she may have been on podium if she hadn’t stopped, though that was her decision and I had been able to react when she did come past. Full results here.
After 5 or 6 weeks off, this was a great start to winter racing! Very well organised with super friendly marshals. I’m not used to racing on my own and was glad to exchange a bit of banter with them on the way round! Tasty Welsh Jones Crisps, a Wild Trail bar and a slate coaster on the finish line (I can never have too many coasters). Hot showers and changing at the end, and some more chat with other racers. I was happy spending my Odlo prize voucher on a pair of fancy arm warmers. Even better, we had plenty of time to get back to Caffi Gwynant for a splendid meal, including the most amazing lemon posset …
Roll on the rest of pre-Christmas races – 4 more in the next 5 weeks!
What we did on Saturday:
Izzy and I had been targeting the swimrun rankings and competition this year. However, the rules for the prizes were changed near the end of the season, and to win we suddenly found ourselves contemplating entering both the sprint and the main Ötillö world series ‘1000 Lakes‘ races in Germany at the start of October. We went for a run in the Pentlands after work one evening and decided to do it …
So after arriving on Thursday and settling into our fantastic apartment, we went for a short run, which I managed to keep to the agreed length! And on Friday a swim in glorious sunshine. We nearly couldn’t find our way back in to our landing point, but otherwise survived! Last year we did very well here, partly because the water was colder than many people are used to. This year, it was 3 weeks earlier, meaning the water was still plenty warm enough to play in wetsuit-free.
We stocked up at the supermarket and made careful plans for our food over the weekend. Andy had impressed on us how we should treat the events like a two day stage race and be careful what we did both during and after the sprint. Obviously this meant stocking up on as many kinds of foreign chocolate flavours as we could justify eating …
Saturday start was fairly relaxed – register, briefing, back to house to change and kill time, start at 11. The sun was shining, the gun went off and everyone really sprinted! I think we were leading the ‘sensible’ bunch but still went 4:32 for the first km. Approaching the first swim, our main rivals for the series prize were just in front. We’d been stronger swimmers than them when we raced in Borås earlier in the year, so I was confident of catching them. However, we got in and my goggles immediately leaked – something that hasn’t happened to me in a swimrun race before! I stopped and faffed but never solved the problem, swimming 900m worrying my contact lens might wash out or get infected, and squinting lopsidedly as I sighted.
We never did catch Maria and Josefine either – turns out they’ve been getting highly effective swim coaching all summer! We were still close though as we ran through the trees. At one point we overtook but they sped up again and we tucked in behind. We had the points advantage so only needed to stay near them, not go crazy. Just then Izzy tripped and fell! It looked innocuous as the ground was soft. She said she hit her head, but she seemed OK and we carried on slightly slower.
As the race progressed, we kept the girls in sight but the pace was pretty rapid. On the final run we could still see them and were gaining slightly, but I was happy to stay like this. I ate at the feed stations even when I didn’t feel I needed it … it was important to stay fuelled and feed the muscles mid race today, ready to perform tomorrow.
I smashed across the final swim, thinking we might catch them up with a straighter line. Not quite, but we ran in to the finish just 24 seconds behind, in 3rd place. The girls who won were waaay ahead and also racing on Sunday. We finished, jogged back, had our milky drinks and a fried egg sandwich, went back for prize giving then home again for another egg sandwich, feet up, then pasta for dinner!
Izzy’s head was fine, but her hand was swollen from the fall, so we bought the cheapest frozen veg we could find in the supermarket and regularly iced it all evening. I even looked up compression bandaging on YouTube and used my compulsory bandage to do a pretty good job of swaddling it up. By morning it looked much the same, but we reasoned if she’d managed to finish today she could do it tomorrow…
An earlier start on Sunday as we boarded the bus in the dark. We set off a little later than expected and hit roadworks and a diversion on the way! We were calm as all we needed to do on arrival was get straight into the toilet queue and put our damp wetsuits back on. We chatted to Ulrika and Helena, the previous day’s winners, as we waited and then made our way to the start. Josefine and Maria came to give us a hug and say good luck. They said they were tired but we didn’t know if it was just bluffing 😀
The gun came as a surprise and we were off. No wrong turnings on the way to the first lake this time, and it was more like a triathlon swim, with a lot of pushing and shoving on the way. Two teams squeezed me from either side and I was left spluttering for air. As we got out to the feed station, we met Michael telling us to keep it steady and that the others were just in front (I think – though it was hard to catch whilst concentrating on everything else!). I wasn’t wasting energy here and tried to ignore everything else and make it our own race. We soon drew close to them, but every time we tried to pass, they accelerated a little and I decided to wait and make our move on the longest run, of 7km. However, as it happened we went past just before the preceding swim.
I thought this might be the crux, where we pulled ahead of a big bunch of teams. I swam down a short river section confidently, having just passed a few female pairs and seeing one we could catch ahead. Out into the main lake and suddenly a pair in orange bibs were coming past! What? I am not great at drafting but I jumped on their feet and worked hard to stay there. Eventually they pulled away, just as another pair came past and I went with them instead. This was like ‘sprinting’ a swim at the start of a triathlon, ignoring what had come before and was to come after! I was finding it mentally quite challenging to be racing so closely with so many other teams.
We left the feed station first and were running through the woods at a fair pace. We could hear the voices of the other girls ringing out behind us for a long time. About 2km to go and I could feel the tow cord getting tighter. I was feeling tired too and hoping we had not pushed too hard too soon… A short swim and another 4km run which I found tough. I still had energy to admire and point out some of the enormous fungi growing in the woods around us though. The increase in support around the course was also noticeable and fantastic – I think the locals now had a better idea of what was going on!
At last we got to a long 1.2km swim and some clear water. We seemed to have pulled away from the other teams although the threat of them reappearing kept spurring me on. In fact it was as if we had finally ‘found our place’ in the race and had some space from everyone. The swim went on and on and on … But when we got out we were on a section we had done the previous day. I was hoping we might be in 4th as given who would likely podium, it would mean direct qualification to the world champs next year. It felt like we had overtaken so many teams, but I had no idea where we were now.
We still caught a couple of male teams and finally were on the last run. This felt much harder than yesterday! My hamstring had been playing up a bit since September and now I could feel it affecting my gait. I said nothing and pushed on. The final swim across to the castle, we were catching two male pairs but didn’t quite make it! Sprint finish and we discovered one of them were our friends Ben and Jonathan.
Only enough for 5th place / 37th overall, although we had moved up from 11th in the early stages. Full results here. It was enough to win the series, despite strong competition from Josefine and Maria, plus Helena and Ulrika storming up behind with two speedy wins in two days. Our pace was faster on both swims and runs compared to last year, which I like to think is fitness but may have just been the extra degrees of warmth!
No qualification to the world champs this time. The girls get one fewer place per race than the other teams, which is something I disagree with. The strength in depth of the girls’ field has grown massively over the last couple of years, which is great. You can go all the way down to 9th here and see a team that finished 77th overall in September. However, there was a big build up for the series prize and we walked away with €2500, biggest prize ever!
Thanks to race directors Mats and Michael and all the other organisers and volunteers, to the photographers Jakob Edholm and Pierre Mangez and to sportextremeswimrun.com for their support this year. Also to Graham at Physis who got my shoulder back in good enough shape after Ötillö for it to be pain free this weekend.
We thought we didn’t know many people going to this race – but turns out there were many familiar and friendly faces. It was great to catch up and get to know people better 🙂 Time for takeaway pizza and more chocolate before the journey home on Monday. Due to the persistent swelling and evident pain, I insisted Izzy went straight to the minor injuries clinic to get her hand checked when we got back – turns out she had a broken finger! No swimming for her for a while!
That’s the end of the swimrun season. I’m taking October off racing, before launching into a packed Nov / Dec with off road duathlons, an Open 5 and my first ever swim-free ultra.
We wanted to visit my dad at least once this summer. My calendar is always full of ‘potential’ races, most of which I don’t end up doing. However, ‘mysteriously’ we ended up in Wales at my dad’s just when there was a swimming race on at the local lake!
I’ve done an event run by this company before and had been impressed. This time they had three different length swims on offer, with separate classes for wetsuit / non wetsuit. I was keen to do the 10km, maybe without the suit. But eventually I was talked down by both my boyfriend and my coach into doing the 5km with a wetsuit! (I’ll just save that notion for another time 😉 ). Andy decided he would join me in the same race.
We woke up to a pleasant morning and walked down through the woods to the start. Midges had appeared from somewhere and time flew by so fast that I ended up getting changed whilst standing in the toilet queue ..
We scuttled to the lakeside just in time for a briefing that didn’t seem to be happening and jumped in for a warm up. The water was pleasant and exceptionally calm. Just before 9 we got out and waited a bit whilst there was a glitch with the timing system. At this point we got a very brief briefing, then we were all allowed back in the water. It wasn’t exactly clear where the start line was, so I shuffled up to the first buoy and chatted to a young girl doing the 10km with no wetsuit. She was lovely and I hope she did well!
We wondered if the start was really here as there were a lot of people huddled around at the shore still. Suddenly someone shouted ‘attention racers!’ ‘go!!!’. We were off. I quickly got into a rhythm. Round the first lap and still with plenty of people. One of the legs was straight into the sun so the buoy was impossible to see until we were almost there, but I kept following other people. At the end of the second lap we headed for shore to jump out and back in again. A number of racers seemed confused at the last buoy, turning left to go round again instead of into shore. The kayakers were directing them.
I leapt out, resisted the urge to put my goggles up and run off up a mountain, and was straight back in again, heading out across the lake. Suddenly it was a lot quieter in the water as all the people doing the 2.5km race hadn’t got back in. At the end of the third lap I was passing people but couldn’t work out if it was people slowing down or people I was lapping. I got to the last buoy and was ready to turn left – but wait?! Where were we going? The next buoy seemed to have moved! Indeed, I later found out that it had, so I wasn’t just going mad.
Final lap and I thought I should give it everything I’d got. It turned out that was what I was doing anyway as nothing much different happened! I was trying to keep myself conscious of my technique, doing all the things I’ve been working on this summer. I’d felt my timing chip shift just after the start and had been paranoid it was falling off, but tried to ignore it as I kicked. Despite a determination to focus, I found myself drifting off and thinking about the plotline of the gripping audio book I’d finished that evening…
Now I was definitely lapping people as I’d come up on them so fast I’d almost go straight into their feet! Out of the corner of my eye I could see another swimmer going a similar speed to me. We were on our final leg and I decided to push it for racing fun. We merged, though I couldn’t get a look at their face to see if they were a boy or girl! We were side by side, matching each other’s stroke and sprinting for the finish. Now I was concentrating 😀
Suddenly they stopped to look around whilst I kept going. I smashed it into the shore, staying horizontal as long as possible; it’s quicker and in this case made it less likely to shred your feet on the sharp stones! I sprinted under the arch, panting for breath and then recovered in time to shake hands with the man who I’d just beaten 🙂
The online results said I was second and I collected a little slate trophy. Discounting a couple of people who looked like they had switched to the 2.5k, I was 8th overall. Not bad. However, later that night I saw some comments on facebook from a pair of people who had mixed their chips up at the start – one of whom was a girl who had gone 30secs faster than me but was listed under the males! Darn, I was relegated to 3rd (overall unaffected)! I was disappointed at first, but it was still great to be on the podium and in the top 10.
We found out later that some of our friends had been racing too, but we completely failed to see them! Andy got us drinks and excellent cake at the coffee van and we wandered off to meet my dad for lunch.
I book-ended the race with some parkrun tourism, finally getting to do the tough and lumpy Penrhyn course on Saturday, then a run up and down ‘my dad’s mountain’ – Elidir Fawr. 20 minutes faster than last December – swapping frost for fog and wind!
Thanks to the organisers and to Babs Boardwell for doing an amazing job of capturing people’s faces in a swimming race!
That’s my last official event before this year’s Ötillö – stand by for the big one!
When I saw that there was an Ötillö merit race in Italy, I knew I wanted to go! Having spent years learning Italian I like to grab my chances to visit a place where I can ask questions and successfully interpret menus!
It was near Bologna and after an hour’s drive we turned into a particularly steep drive and arrived at our B&B. The lady who greeted us didn’t speak English so I was straight into my best attempts at Italian whilst Izzy followed and smiled! We were in the perfect place – a whole apartment complete with mini kitchen, terrace and cake for breakfast and just 20 minutes walk from the race HQ (or longer by the scenic woodland trail).
We had a couple of days to explore and try out the water. The most dramatic event was a snake slithering over Izzy’s legs as we innocently looked at the view from a pavement …
Registration and logistics were as simple as can be. A cheap swim hat, a nice t-shirt that wasn’t white or black and which actually fitted (right priorities!), our number written on our arm and leg. No timing chip, no bib, no compulsory kit! It was HOT so we didn’t even need a wetsuit and the race course zig-zagged around a fairly compact area which I guess made it easier to marshal and provide safety cover.
On race morning we both felt a bit sick. I put it down to nerves and once we actually got started I was fine. We agreed to stay off the tow for the first run in the mêlée, straight up and down a hill. Izzy set a good pace and we were soon at the first swim. I wasn’t sure where to go but followed others and enjoyed the feeling of cool water on my skin.
Next run was up and down again (a much repeated pattern!). Izzy seemed to find this leg harder and after some previous experiences, I was anxious not to tow too hard on the downhills. Into another swim and now we faced the longest leg of about 7km. It went uphill more than expected, then into an extended downhill on a mixture of wide tracks and winding woodland trails.
The further we went, the slower we seemed to go. I was getting frustrated but did not say anything. As another female pair ran past us, Izzy slipped and when she was up, took the tow off. I could tell by the way she did it that there was no arguing. However, after this we started going at a much better pace, catching the girls back up as we got to the longest swim.
We had clear instructions here: aim for the church high on the hill, then you’ll see a blue iron pier, aim for that, then the landing is just to the left. Off we went, I could see the church, then the pier. The closer we got, I kept looking for a flag to the left and could see something green I hoped was a marshal vest. We were with two other pairs and a kayaker came over and seemed to be trying to tell us something. I paused and looked around – darn, the green thing was a tent, there was a buoy and a flag way over to our left! I abruptly changed course and we landed.
The next run was a short 1.5km along the shoreline and it reminded me a bit of the trails we’d had so much fun on in Spain. I wasn’t sure if Izzy wanted the tow on or off as we seemed to be making tentative progress. I was wondering whether to ask when the girls overtook us again. At that moment, Izzy crashed to the ground, tripping on a tree root.
She cried out that her wrist hurt and was thoroughly miserable sitting on the floor. A couple walking asked if she’d fallen and looked a bit bemused at us. I was assessing the damage. Izzy was still putting weight through both hands so I decided the wrist couldn’t be broken and probably the best thing to do was get the tow off and wait and see what happened next. She got up and started moving. We made it to the lake and hooked back on. I told her if she couldn’t use her arm then to be as streamlined as possible! I wasn’t sure if I could tow a one-armed swimmer, but I’d give it a go! As it was, she had been able to modify her stroke slightly so it didn’t hurt too much and I didn’t notice any difference from normal.
Out the other side and I knew racing bets were off. I took the tow off to allow Izzy to go at her own pace without pressure from me. We were over halfway through but had the long run to do in reverse, up and up the hill through the woods. We walked and sometimes jogged and walked some more. I went through many emotions and thoughts in my head but mostly said nothing.
Eventually we came out onto the road and we knew the climb was nearly done. I gave Izzy some encouragement for toughing it out and knew we’d finish now. I even attempted a few ‘jokes’ to lighten the mood 😀 . It was about here she told me she’d been feeling super sick since the first swim. We pondered why: too much caffeine or cake at breakfast? Not used to the tap water? Something we swallowed in our test lake swim? The ice cream? Snake shock?! We didn’t really come to a concrete conclusion but kept plugging away.
Now we repeated some early parts of the course and finally just had the first run to do in reverse. We came down the hill and into the finish, had our time recorded and stopped. We were second female pairs, but there hadn’t been a lot of competition and looking at the time of the winners (who we’d been with at halfway) it was clear that our travails had cost us at least 20 minutes.
However, we had avoided a DNF and had persevered. And now we just had to bag a sun lounger and investigate the post race food! Two kinds of pasta, loads of cake with lemons to squeeze over, beer, soft drinks, sun, shade, chat from other racers … It was a great atmosphere!
Full results here. This race is really good value for money, simple and fantastic to race without any need for a wetsuit 🙂 Even though the weather was hot, the frequent swims keep you cool and there is a lot of tree cover. The Italians seem to come out in force in their matching club strips, so there is a lot of buzz about the place. The t-shirt and post race food were excellent and we got some fun prizes. I’d like to come back and fly round the course! Recommended!
About 3 weeks ago, a friend at work came up to me when I was at the printer. “Are you doing Rockman?” she asked. I was surprised she knew anything about it. Me: “No, why?”. Her: “Oh, my boyfriend’s sister is injured and looking for someone to race with her partner, who is called M..M..” Me: “Marie?!!”
Turned out it was Marie, who I already know. Turned out the race was exactly in between Ironman 70.3 and swimrun Bologna. Turned out there wasn’t anything else in the diary for that weekend. Turned out I said yes. Then I looked at the course detail properly and got slightly concerned. Turned out I was already committed!
And so it was I found myself getting picked up at 5.15am one Friday morning for a drive to Aberdeen and a flight to Stavanger, Norway. Ruth was the injured party, but she used to live there and had friends to meet and volunteering to do on the race itself. She was also an incredible tour guide / fixer all weekend; I have never felt so spoilt!
Rockman is a swimrun race based around a Norwegian Fjord. It was stated as 6km total swimming and 35km running, though I measured a little more. However, one look at the finish times told me something more about the race. Winning times of over 8 hours? On closer inspection, I discovered that the elevation gain was in the region of 2500m or more. The briefing was clear: do not be alarmed when you look at your watch and wonder why it is so slow …
On Saturday morning we all got up early, leaving Ruth’s friend’s house in a taxi. We were straight onto the fast boat to the start. Marie is a chatterbox and we were soon engaged with the others at our seats. The start involves jumping off the back of the ferry straight into the water. We seemed to wait for ages until the music started playing – and I laughed when we got ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ – very appropriate given the towering dark cliffs all around us!
On the hooter we all shuffled forwards and jumped. I screamed just a little bit. We had to swim into a cleft, touch a rock and come back out. It was a mêlée and there was a lot of confusion before we got untangled and set off again. I was unimpressed with the swimmer who swam right next to us for ages and kept threatening to clip me with their paddle. I had to work super hard to drop them!!
Our plan was for me to lead the swims and Marie the runs. We’ve raced together before in an Open 5 and a score mountain run, but never in swimrun, and those races were years ago. After the first swim, it was straight up a steep narrow path and it did not seem worth switching the tow around. I led, but didn’t really pull. I just got urged along, with Marie shouting to teams in front that we were now passing them (were we?! 😀 ). It was only 1.6km but took 25 minutes – a taste of what was to come.
Then a series of short swims and runs, a slight disagreement about which way around a tree to go and a kerfuffle when Marie’s belt fell off (not for the last time in the race!). This section was otherwise uneventful! Then it was the start of an 8km run up to the famous ‘Preikestolen‘ (or ‘Pulpit Rock’) and back down again.
We began the ascent with another female team and Marie marched us past them. The climb was mainly uneven rough hewn rock steps. I was keeping up without being pulled, but did wonder if I was pushing it too hard. I decided there was only one way to find out…
Up and up we went, leaving the treeline and emerging into the sun. It was hot. Marie had calf guards and wetsuit sleeves on and was feeling the heat. She debated taking the sleeves off or pulling her suit down but it turned out later she was worried I would get cross with the faffing! It would have been faff, but in hindsight would have been a good idea.
Anyway, at some point we switched roles and I pulled the last part to the top. What incredible views! We grabbed some sweeties and got our photo taken. The final part was out and back, so we knew we were in second place, with third just a couple of minutes behind.
Marie is a better descender than me, hot or not, so she went back on the front. As we passed a small lake I yelled at her to get in. She lay face down with me splashing water over her head. Much later on we saw a hot looking pig in a field and Marie said that’s how she felt, like a pig getting cool and snuffling in water!
The girls behind us overtook at speed as we picked our way through the woods. I was keeping up OK, and Marie felt better on the downhill in the shade. She’d given me her arm warmers, which I stuffed in my suit. Later a men’s team handed them back to us – they had dropped out and I had no idea – thanks guys! We later abandoned them altogether at a checkpoint with a willing marshal.
The next swim was short, but afterwards it was another 4km and Marie decided to ‘cab down’. Like me, she had a front zip only wetsuit, and it was tough to get it off whilst not dropping hats, goggles, paddles etc. Turns out it was worth it though, as straight away she shot off considerably faster. Wow!
I was now getting pulled over roots and steps and round corners. The tow was forcing me to keep up and not lose ground on the tricky bits. We stayed tethered nearly all race, when many other teams said it was much too technical to do so. However, I’m used to it from adventure races and got into a routine of holding a bit of slack in the tow, playing it out and shouting if it got too tight over a difficult bit. I find it also forces me to be a bit braver and just let go.
At some point along here I started feeling much less fresh. I had to concentrate to stay sure footed and might have stopped listening or responding to so much of the chat … I was consciously trying to eat more, and I needed to use some of my own supplies as feed stations were further apart than usual and lacking in bananas, my favourite snack! I got frequent reminders from in front to take another gel, and usually took heed 😉
In this way we arrived at the next long swim, 1600m along the fjord next to the rock face. I wasn’t sure where to aim and set my sights directly on a point I thought we had to go round. We overtook many teams here, some hugging the coast, some out near us. We’d been warned about the nippy red jellyfish, but I only saw a few, floating deep beneath us. Just as I started to feel a bit cold I spied a banner just before the point and we got out.
This transition felt slow, as we had a hot drink and messed about with food, taking the tow right off and getting Marie’s wetsuit down. As we set off I wondered what we had been doing for so long! If we raced again we’d need to get these changes slicker 😉 The next section was described as a ‘seaside sprint’, with some mockery. Although it started like before in the woods and I was getting dropped without the tow, it soon turned into a narrow boulder field, alternating big rocks, scree crossings and short wooded sections. I was amused that this was still marked as a national trail, and we had to keep our eyes peeled for the red ‘T’s showing us the way.
2km and 36 minutes later, we emerged unscathed despite a couple of dodgy moments where I slipped or landed awkwardly and only just saved myself toppling down into the sea. Now we faced 5km uphill on tarmac. Ooft! I got cross as Marie raced off whilst I tried to untangle the tow and harness her up!! Even I soon decided I had to get my wetsuit down here. The not-forecasted sun was scorching us and it was uphill. Once we’d done that we settled into a strong steady trot, running side by side and reeling in the occasional team. I was feeling pretty tired and made an effort to eat a bar and some gels.
I was also getting concerned about how we would get back down to the sea in such a short remaining run distance. But before then we hit the waffle checkpoint! No need to queue as Marie did last year, so we didn’t have to choose between racing on after the other teams or getting a waffle! I gratefully took two, smothered in jam. I was happy to walk and eat so ordered Marie to start walking. She started jogging straight down a steep grassy hill. I yelled to walk and she answered she didn’t know how. I riposted that if she kept running I might throw up (it was true). She ignored me so I got like a mule and dug my heels in! After this contretemps, we were back up to racing speed. I was at my limit, tripping and stumbling and just trying to keep it together.
At the bottom it was time for the last long swim, one I was looking forward to straight across the fjord and past the finish line at Flørli before going up another big hill. It was here that Marie shouted she had trouble with her new suit. The day before, we’d tested it out in a small outdoor pool in Stavanger and decided to risk it in the race as she loved the greater shoulder flexibility. We had one small concern – a strange and fiddly double zip arrangement.
It was here we came unstuck on the ‘never try anything new in a race’ rule. We couldn’t get the zip to engage properly and every time we pulled it up it just split open again. The marshal tried, I tried, and after about 5 minutes we gave up. Marie, you’re going to have to suck it up and swim across without it zipped. It was quite frustrating after working so hard on the previous section, to be stood there not moving and seemingly with all the teams we had recently overtaken streaming past us.
We jumped in and left, with me wondering what they had been saying about currents. I tried swimming without sighting and checking how we moved. Left. We needed to aim right. I was determined to swim strong, always thinking Marie might be cold with water continually flushing through her open zipped wetsuit. Another team headed way to the left of us and I hoped they were just off course. The water was warm with cold spots. Or was it cold with warm spots? Every time it got cold I pulled harder, we couldn’t slow down now! We had to land to the right of a large white old power station building. But I wasn’t sure how far right and I couldn’t see a flag or a banner. Was that red blob a banner? Or should I aim for the orange blob?
As we got closer I decided red was a house and orange was a buoy. We went for the buoy. As we emerged, we got both wetsuits down again and off we ran. Marie panicked about her hat and goggles – still on her head! I braced myself for the next challenge …
The fabled 4444 Flørli steps, a wooden staircase alongside the old hydroelectric power station pipes. Marie wanted me to run. I tried but just couldn’t, so we settled for a power walk. I used one hand to keep me steady and pull on the cable or handrail. Marie used both, but I couldn’t with the tow in the way between us. I felt I had completely cracked as I was now being forcibly hauled up like a sack of potatoes. Occasionally the tow got so tight I did one or two double steps to try and catch up before settling back into a rhythm. I couldn’t look at anything except the step in front, else I lost my footing. Marie kept encouraging me, telling me we were gaining on other teams and saying how well we were doing. There was a number marked on the steps every 500 and they seemed to come slow, then fast, then slow. And up we went, relentlessly. We overtook some teams and it got easier near the top. We broke into a jog and got to the next swim, just in time to catch up with the second placed female pair who had been in front ever since they overtook us on the ‘overheating run’.
Marie announced she couldn’t be bothered getting her suit back on. Oh, OK I thought, well it will be quicker in transition! I did likewise. These last three swims were all short but icy cold … We just launched in and didn’t switch the tow line. I took it easy getting a rest and drinking as we went.
The next run brought us to a 4pm cut off to do the high and long route. Apparently the weather had ruled this out in previous races, so this year we were lucky. We made it with 47mins to spare and set off round the ‘Dragon’s Neck’. I wanted to race but was stressed about the female team getting away from us again. We’d reel them in a bit on an uphill, then they’d fly off again on a downhill. I wondered if I was reacting against the fight and backing off. I discussed it with Marie, but I knew I was trying so hard. My big toes were blistered and sore and my legs were heavy.
I also told her that I was scared about final run down the hill. She reassured me and we chatted some more about life as we picked our way over giant rock slabs. I felt a bit better. Coming down the final ridge we saw Ruth marshalling on the other side of the final swim. She expressed surprise about our half-undressed state, and offered us an Oreo cookie and chocolate. I remember her yelling that we were looking so strong and how that made me feel good 🙂 . On the way out, we got a great view of the loop we’d just done, but not enough time to marvel at it!
Now we were both on fire. There was a section of gravel road, and Marie spurred me on. We could see teams ahead and aimed to pick them off one by one, even if they were short-coursed and actually behind us in the overall race. There was no sight of the girls but we still raced and raced to the end. The track was like something through the heather in the Scottish Highlands, and I felt awesome. I was on the tow and it had some slight tension, but I was trying to skip and dance, following in Marie’s footsteps. She tripped and lunged forwards twice, but incredibly stayed upright. The final approach was very steep, but we kept it up and I let the tow guide me. My knees were complaining but I knew it wouldn’t be for long. As we went down the final zig-zag we could hear a massive cheer and we did a sprint finish side by side.
My legs were suddenly wobbly and I wasn’t sure I could stay standing up. I started getting all emotional from the effort! Marie guided me over to the hot tub where we could soak and cheer other finishers as they came round the corner. The post race food for me was something akin to stovies – the potato stodge was just what I needed! Prize giving was occasionally interrupted by the final finishers, who got the biggest cheer of the day 🙂 The winners got amazing unique rings with little rocks embedded them, presented by “Rockman” himself! If you want to know more about the legend, you’ll have to go to the race to hear the next instalment!
We were 3rd female pair, just over 3 minutes behind 2nd. Even more pleasingly, we were 14th overall out of 77 starters. We were also fastest women up the steps (in 44:02), just 2:25 behind the overall winners of the step climb prize. Congratulations to all the other racers, and to the mixed pair who won overall. Results.
Massive thanks to Ruth for organising all our logistics and being a top notch tour guide. Also to Marie for inviting me to be part of this epic race and whole weekend. Likewise the organisers and photographers. This race was the second longest swimrun course I’ve done (by time) and certainly one of the most technical and demanding underfoot – very few chances to zone out! I’ve done much harder swims, but these were certainly scenic. Teaser video already available here – I’m looking forward to reliving the day when the full thing comes out. A race to experience!