Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A Brief Slaying of The Dragon

Race Overview
Sitting at my desk on Monday morning, I could almost have dreamt up last week running the length of Wales......but a brief look down at my bruised, battered, scraped and swollen legs assures me that I did actually cover the whole distance from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennan Castle on foot via mountains, fields, screes, rocky ridges, bogs, tussocky hills, trails, roads etc!
It'll take me some time to recover so I'll describe the days in more detail for those interested, but thought I'd jot down a few thoughts while they're still fresh in my mind.....
- I thought I might not make the startline as I was floored by manflu (and am so paranoid re the WADA database that I won't even take a decongestant). Many many worries and doubts.... was I up to the technical nature and navigation involved in the event ? what if everyone else ran away and left me floundering behind? what if everyone else knew each other? what if I made no friends all week? did I have the right kit? did I have enough food?
Pre-race briefing
- too late to do much about it now as I was already registered, and so had my tracker and dibber attached. Reassuringly, there were people of all ages from various locations so not everyone had come with friends. It was nice to chat to a few people prior to the event starting....and suffer some joint stress over the words "2 out of 3 of you won't make it" from the race director. We were also warned about how many people would be watching the trackers, so for the sake of future events, we needed to be very careful not to cross private lands/farmer's fields etc except on permissive paths....not sure I slept that well that night!!!
Conwy Castle
Day 1 - 50K, 3,824m ascent - Carneddau, Glyders & Snowdon
- great fun running round the castles walls then it was off into the rain, hail, sun and wind (bring on the weather Wales). Yes, my tracker stopped twice.....but not in a cafe or pub....one time was such a good face plant that I lay there stunned counting to make sure I still had all my teeth, the other was when I was paralysed with fear on Crib Goch. I so wanted to quit at that point!

Day 2 - 54K, 3,544m ascent - Moelwyns & Rhinogs
- hot but great company - I chose to avoid the road option (idiot) as I felt that I was there for the off road experience. We scrambled up near vertical slopes in knee deep heather, and a slight nav issue at the end made it a v long day. I really wanted to quit but we were given a surprise of ice cream on arrival at camp!

Day 3 - 68K, 3,712m ascent - Cadair Idris & Plynlimon
- the longest day, but I had some great running with great company, esp when the clag cleared. We evn crossed the "race the train" trainline. I thought I might just make the week as I'd convinced myself there was only 1 short day left - bit of a let down to read from my print out that there were still 2 days and significant mileage left!

Day 4 - 64K, 2,274m ascent - Elan Valley
- consisted of a 30 mile hilly sociable warm up with a new friend, then a 10k road time trial (bring it on!!! I think I recorded the fastest time for this stretch!!!). Today's surprise was a fresh apple when I got to the campsite. Might just make it all the way now as we're nearly there....
Carreg Cennan Castle

Day 5 - 57K, 2,214m ascent - Brecon Beacons
- the morning was good running with lovely company; but the afternoon was rather more solo with driving rain, -5 wind chill, and near hyperthermia.....another tumble hurt my quad so I couldn't even run the last stretch to climb up from the river to the castle, but I was so happy just to make it that I would have crawled!!!
- what an amazing week!! I've laughed, cried, walked, run, scrambled, tumbled, chatted, scratched, whinged, cheered, eaten , been inspired and motivated, hugged people, and not really slept for the length of Wales (well almost).....I was so far out of my comfort zone that I was in a whole other country, but I did it......and I think the realisation is only just about sinking in! I am so grateful to Shane Ohly (though I might have harboured dark thoughts about him at certain points en route) and Berghaus for giving me the opportunity to take part - it takes an immense amount of organisation, dedication and commitment....... and Shane and his team were with us for the whole of the journey!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Enter the Dragon

As the Dragon's Back approaches, I am unsure if I'm looking forward to it, or absolutely petrified of it.......

"The legendary Dragon’s Back Race follows the mountainous spine of Wales from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. This incredible 5-day journey is approximately 300 kilometres long with 16,000 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain. It is not a trail race - it is one of the hardest mountain races in the world"

Initially I was really drawn to the idea of an amazing week in the mountains with nothing to do but run (or walk or I have to), talk, eat, drink and sleep....I wasn't thinking of it as a competitive event, but more of an unforgettable life experience to be relished and enjoyed (!). As the startline approaches, I'm trying my hardest to keep this mindset and not be drawn in by "race pundits" commenting on how they think the week (and the runners) will pan out....and so one of the best things I've heard this week was from my friend Audrey, who said she would rather hear that I'd come 15th and enjoyed the week, than finished on the podium but made myself miserable due to the pressure and expectation laid upon me!

It seems an appropriate time to post the blog entry that Berghaus (the race sponsor) had asked me to write for them (all the following pics courtesy of Berghaus)..................

Last year became rather a whirlwind of road races at a very public level, with the marathon, the 50K and the 100K, so this year I really wanted to take a step back and have a break from the pressure of chasing times and other specific road goals.

I wanted to regain my love for running for the it's own sake, but wasn't quite sure how to do this. Shane Ohly of Ourea Events came to my rescue by suggesting The Dragon's Back race to me. This is a 5 day event (I say "event" rather than race, as it may be more about endurance and survival than classical speed) down the mountainous backbone of Wales, from North to South. Berghaus were looking for a couple of runners, not necessarily fast runners, that would be interested in taking part and talking about their experiences. Having done a few Mountain Marathons and a multi-day desert race, I was rather intrigued and so watched the DVD of the 2012 race with anticipation....and some awe!

It looked perfect - several days out in the hills....... just running, eating, sleeping and chatting to people.....and all of this in beautiful scenery in a part of the world that I'm ashamed to say that I hardly know even though it's relatively close....so I was in!!!

It took a couple of days (?weeks) for the reality to set in - or rather panic.....what had I done? What was I thinking? How could I prepare for such an undertaking? I'd get totally lost! I'd never make it through the first day, never mind the week!!!

Although Shane carefully vets every application to ensure that people have experience of mountainous, navigational and endurance events, I am sure that many other runners also have serious doubts about their own ability when they start to think about how to prepare for the Dragon's Back, and it is often reassuring to know that you are not alone in your worries.

I have tried to divide my preparation up into 5 main groups in my head - endurance/general fitness, familiarity with terrain, choice and comfort of kit, nutrition, and the event itself - this may not work for everyone, but breaking things down makes them seem more manageable to me.

1.  I don't think that fitness/endurance is too much of an issue for me, as I've been running for several years now, have taken part in several distance events, and seem to recover quite well. I know that some people like to do a lot of long distance runs, such as back to back long runs at weekends (ie a long run on both Saturday and Sunday), but I have found that this doesn't suit me. I just get more tired than I'd like - which would make the second run less enjoyable, more of a chore and I would be more likely to have an accident or develop an injury. What has seemed to suit me better is to have a shorter faster run on the Saturday, and then a longer slower run on the Sunday, though I admit this is a case of trial and error, and has to fit in around other commitments.

2.  Familiarity with the terrain is an interesting one, as nothing would beat actually living and training in the mountains of Wales, but obviously this is not possible for most people. As I live in Scotland, it is often assumed that I'm up in the remote Highlands, but actually I live at sea-level in SW Scotland, not far from the border, so rather a long way from the mountains. I also have a busy day job and so although I try to go to the woods for some easy recovery runs, much of my running has to be done on nearby streets, roads and pavements.
I had a few road race commitments already, but knew it was important to spend some time on the hills, as I freely admit that I'm no mountain goat. I like to ascend, but the whole world and his dog will run past me on descents - and I'm famous for my flailing "girlie arms" as I go down. Unfortunately the first time I went out for a run on the Yorkshire Three Peaks, I tripped and cracked a bone in my hand....but I made myself go back and run the race a couple of months later, and survived that without further tumbles. I spent a day out on some of the Welsh 3000s with friends - and again found myself lying on the ground (this time due to a combination of cold, the wind and rocks) with a bruised swollen shin - but better to do that now than at the start of the Dragon's Back. I joined the same friends for a weekend running in the hills round Annecy, and took part in the Intercounty Fell Champs in Wales (Ok, so I was near the back of the field in the race, but it made me run faster than is comfortable for me on off-road terrain), so I'm actually looking forward to enjoying the hills more than fearing them now!

3.  I still haven't (quite) finalised my kit - either what I will have in my overnight bag or what I will be running in during the day. Angela (from Berghaus) sent me some different items to try out, as it is important that you are familiar and comfortable with everything come race day (or week......actually, we might all become rather too familiar with each other's kit by the end of it). I aimed to test out how waterproof and windproof outer shells were, how comfortable shorts and tops were - did they fit? did they chafe? did they wick? - and what socks/shoes provided the most comfortable combination over time. Fashion isn't really my thing - and neither is standing out - so I was a bit shocked at some of  the bright pink colours....but then again, I'd rather be spotted if the weather turns on me, or if I'm struggling.

4.  Nutrition....yeay.....my favourite thing!!! I love my food and drink, so one of the most appealing things about the event are the cake when you arrive at camp (that will inspire me to make sure I'm not the last arrival or else there may be none left), and the catered breakfasts and dinners - the menu looks delicious - and I don't have to cook anything!! I'm generally not very fussy about what I eat out on the hills, as long as I get enough of it. I have no problems in trying out new food combinations (though obviously before an event not during), as I know from experience that you can get sick of just having the same thing all the time. Over a week I think it's important to have a variety of flavours and textures, both sweet and savoury, though a stock of old favourites is also vital. I know from Mountain Marathon experience that supermarkets to tend to look at you strangely when you actively seek out the hot choclate sachets with the most calories in them, and start asking about the lightest, most calorie-dense food......not what they expect from slimmer ladies!!

5. The only thing left is the event itself......and it's fair to say that although I'm looking forward to it, I'm also rather nervous about it. I did speak to Shane about the navigation element of it, as I know that some course planners make checkpoints harder to find than others, but he reassured me that this would not be the case, as the main challenge is not meant to be the navigation. I know that some people use GPS devices, but for me, I like the mental as well as physical challenge, so I will be a map and compass girl (and hopefully not a mountain rescue girl!!). I think that if you are sensible and don't destroy yourself early on, then there's no reason why everyone cannot complete the course (though obviously accidentsd and injuries do happen unexpectedly however good the prior preparation is). My poor descending ability might help me out, as it will certainly mean that I'm a lot further back down the field than some of the mountain goats, and so mean that I actually relax and really enjoy the whole week, running with people and making new friends rather than trying to race anyone. In fact, the more I think about it......I can't wait to get out there and meet everyone!!!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015


It is always difficult to work out what to do post-Comrades. My stomach was fine, my heel had nicely scabbed over, and I didn't feel as tired as I thought I would. I do, however, realise that there is often a lot of deep fatigue and stress on the body that may not be immediately apparent, so it is vital to have some recovery time, even if you don't really feel that you need it.
I only had a grand total of 3 weeks between Comrades and my upcoming adventures in Wales, so there was little time for any productive training (but lots of time to destroy myself). I wanted to let my heel settle fully, so rather than throwing away my cut-away trainers, I wore them for a few gentle jogs in that first week.
A sociable run
By the time the weekend came around, it was time to start teaching my legs of their need to run off road again. A sociable trip to the Lakes was in order, so a friend (Audrey) and I headed down to Ambleside for a "shoe and kit trial" event (I tried a brand of shoe which I hadn't realised made running shoes as well as climbing shoes, and Audrey tried on a hydration pack). We started off with coffee and cake and a chance to chat to both the manufacturers and other runners - and then headed out for a few easy miles in the hills. We covered road, trail, grass, steps and some rocky sections before being picked up and driven back to the start (well, those wanting a longer run carried on in a loop rather than getting a lift back) - all at a nice comfy pace so we could chat as we went. The shoes were comfy and didn't rub, I caught up with friends, and I got to run in a part of the Lakes that I don't know v well, so it was a great day out!
The beautiful view over Tarn Hows
The next day was the Lakeland Trail Marathon and Half Marathon down in Coniston. Ian had entered the half marathon thinking that it was a month after Comrades, but unfortunately he got his dates mixed up and there was only a week between the two. I decided to go down and keep him company on the trip, but Graham Patten, the race organiser, kindly gave me a last minute entry into the half marathon (I had won the marathon a few years ago, which had earnt me a free race entry). It wasn't an easy course, but it would give me a chance to run a little bit quicker off road - though Ian and I did guestimate that we would only get to 5 miles before Comrades-legs kicked in!
At the top of the climb.....
When we started, I doubted that I would actually make the 3 mile point before my legs gave up the ghost, as I seemed to be feeling every little climb, but I forced my self to just relax and enjoy it - as it was about the "off road time" rather than about a "race time". I was determined not to walk any of the climbs no matter how tired I felt, as I hadn't walked any of Comrades (a silly resolution maybe, but it's the little mental battles that keep you going). I enjoyed the views of Tarn Hows as we ran a lap around it (though I have no idea how I could possible have remembered it as a flat lap) and it was nice to catch up with some of the "challenge" runners (who'd set off an hour before us). I doubt that I was looking my finest for the photographer positioned at the top of the climb away from the lake, but at least he wasn't on the next long downhill stretch. I found this probably more of a challenge than the ups, as I didn't really trust the level of strength and control in my quads. I had been counting down to the finish from the 7mile point, and worked out when I "just had the distance from the top of Polly Shortts to go"....and believe me it was a case of survival by then. There is a twist to the finish of the race, as you think you are heading towards the gantry, but then the runners are sent around a lap of the carpark and finishing field. This actually makes for a nice finish (except for the dry stone wall that must be hurdled - though a carpet was laid down to aid this - and the stream that must be forded) as the half marathoner and the marathoners come together for a final few hundred metres past all the waiting spectators. Amazingly, I'd held on (but only just) to finish as first lady, and then managed to stagger back out onto the end of the course to cheer Ian home.
The next weekend saw the Mabie Trail 10K, which was the second counter in our club's trail Grand Prix. I wasn't sure whether to take part or not right up to the day, and have to say that I wasn't exactly feeling my best on the day. It had been my work's summer BBQ & cocktails the afternoon/night before - so between the aftereffects of that and the start of manflu, I knew there wouldn't be any groundbreaking performances, but it's still nice to support a local event.
Into the finish at Mabie
I would describe the race itself as a multiterrain one - about 4 miles are on forestry roads and there are 2 miles of trail. Over the years I have been running at Mabie, the trails have become more gravalled and manicured, and tree felling has meant that a lot of the single track has disappeared, but as a reaction to this, the roads have become harder to run on as they are filled with jagged stones and branches/ruts from the logging trucks. After about a mile, I knew that I couldn't hang on to the guys in front, so I "let them go" (not that I really had a choice - it was more that "they ran away from me up a hill"). From then on in, I was running alone, apart from the odd cheery marshals. I was really happy to finish no more than a few minutes slower than the last time I'd run the race, as it could have gone much more pear-shaped. Now to put my strength into fighting the man-flu.....

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Run that Nearly Wasn't....

I've described the amazing Comrades Marathon (well ultra-marathon really) in the past, so I won't go over it all again, but there are a few things that stand out in my memory of this year's "up-run".

I wasn't really sure how to approach the race itself, as I hadn't specifically targeted or trained for it, but didn't want to miss it as I think it's one of the best races on the calendar, and should be on every distance runner's bucket list. When I say that I "hadn't specifically trained for it", I mean that I had actually only done 2 road-runs of over 30Km in 2015 - one was the Seville Marathon, and the other was the Wings For Life World Run!!

I had vaguely thought about pacing my friend Ian who I'd talked into going out and running his first Comrades, but he decided to aim for a slower time than initially planned to ensure he enjoyed completing it, and after a good run out at Kirkcudbright, I thought that I could sensibly target a silver medal time (sub 7hrs 30)....and if the ladies' field happened to be slightly weak, then I might be able to sneak into 10th position for another gold medal, but that would depend on others rather than me. Looking at it with a sensible head on, I decided that I should start out with the target of a silver medal and then if it wasn't happening (ie my legs didn't have it in them) then I would make a conscious decision to drop back and just enjoy the rest of the run, soaking up the atmosphere!

A "doctored" shoe
When I arrived in Durban itself, it seemed like actually running the race was becoming more and more unlikely. The injury that I'd picked up during the Kirkcudbright Half was not settling at all, despite me using a variety of dressings and creams, and wearing flipflops as much as possible. Whenever I put on a pair of shoes, my heel/Achilles started to weep and bleed (and really hurt!!!). I couldn't even manage to run a mile without stopping and limping.  However, as a final last ditch attempt to be able to make the start line, we cut away the back of an old pair of running shoes (that I had been planning on leaving in the shoe recycling boxes) and on the Saturday I managed a pain-free, blood-free couple of miles. I was good to go - well, at least I was going to line up on the start line and see what happened. If it became irritated or painful, then I would pull out, as it was not worth getting a more serious injury or infection and writing myself out of running for several weeks.

Hanging with Ellie

On Race Morning (ie Sunday), it was an early start for porridge (with a muffin chaser - I do like my cake!!) and then I met the other Elite runners in the Town Hall at 5am (it never ceases to amaze me how people run round and round the room to "warm up" when it's 21 degrees outside and they're about to run another 55 miles!!). All of us Nedbank girls had painted our fingernails green and were wearing a pink ribbon as a tribute to Rhiana van Niekirk (our Nedbank teammate - who had been ahead of me at the WFLWR just a few weeks earlier) as she'd just been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer - that really put things into perspective!!

Startline nerves....

I ran to the start with Ellie (Greenwood) and my fears of being trampled started to resurface - I can actually be seen climbing up some of the barriers at the side to avoid the crush in pictures just prior to the run. I made sure I was back down with two feet firmly on the ground as we listened to Shosholoza and the cock crowing, though there were many people from further back pushing up and around us, eager to sprint off at the sound of the gun.

It looked like all my fears were going to be realised, as a man in front of me was tripped up and knocked down right after we set off, and I was being pushed into him. Luckily for me, Ellie reacted instantaneously and came to my rescue, grabbing me and dragging me sideways and around him so that I did not get caught up in it. I was so grateful to her for this, as for a brief flash, I'd seen another run totally written off by other people pushing and shoving to gain mere a second or two. Once I'd stabilised myself and got my heart rate back out of the stratosphere, I set off to try to catch Ellie up to thank her. I knew that running the first couple of miles way too fast might seriously harm my overall run, but to me, a friendship is more important than any run - and so I was very glad to be able to catch her up and thank her before dropping back to my steady pace!

"Stand and Hand" rule strictly obeyed!

I had arranged to first see Dave (Pearse - my super seconder) after about 20K. It was starting to get much lighter now so I grabbed my sunglasses from him, and reassured him that my
heel was feeling OK - I was in about 15th position in the ladies' field at this point and feeling comfortable there. I knew that by just running steadily I would start to overtake a few ladies who had gone off rather fast, and so I reached halfway in about 11th position.

The early morning sun

I know better than to listen to people at the side of the road telling me where I am in the ladies' field, but I trusted Dave and Patrick (he was encouraging all of a Team Nedbank and giving us feedback on positions)......though it did start to become rather comical. Every time I saw one or other of them, they would tell me that I was 11th lady.......even though I would pass at least one lady before I saw them again. I started to wonder if I should just "settle" for 11th, but I reckoned that it was possibly the worst position to finish in......so close to a prized gold medal, yet not quite making it.

I was (just quietly) rather happy when I reeled in Marina (she is a Russian lady who has already earned at least 10 Comrades gold medals - finishing ahead of me in my first two Comrades and also my first 100k race, though roles have been reversed in the last couple of races) and moved into the top 10. Spying Dave just afterwards, I gave him a cheer, but knew that I couldn't rest on my laurels as she is one tough cookie and could easily come back to overtake me.During the run, I must've heard every possible mutation of my name being called out, but suddenly I heard it being pronounced perfectly. I gave a double thumbs up, and the next thing I knew  a Polish man had come out of the crowd and was running alongside me. I managed to answer his first question (as the Polish was basic enough for me), but I couldn't really understand what he said next. I didn't know how to explain and apologise to him, so I'm ashamed to say that I just sped up and ran away!
Still, it is the small things, such as this, that happen
Appearance of slight carnage?
along the road, that create the best memories.

I saw Dave for the last time with about 15k to go.....he told me that I was in 9th place and that Ellie was in 7th place. It's funny, but in the last couple of races when Ellie and I have been team mates, I have always finished 2 places behind her. I know how strong she is in the final stages of the race and had no doubt that she would be moving up at least on
Great seconding by Dave ;-)
e more place before the finish. Unfortunately, Dave also told me that the 8th placed lady was 4 minutes ahead of me, so I couldn't see me continuing the "two places behind" trend. At the bottom of Polly Shortts (the famous "last" hill), there was a "pink drive" aid station, whose aim is to promote cancer awareness and education. It was their pink ribbons that all of us Nedbank girls were wearing, in a nod to our teammate Riana. As I ran past them, I pointed to my ribbon with both hands, and so it was nice to hear a shout and cheer for Riana over the microphone, as the station organiser explained my gesture.
The final push (kinda....)

In all the times that I have run Comrades, I haven't walked a step.......but you always wonder which time will be the first. As I was still just about running, I tried to encourage a couple of people walking up Pollys, and then got my own encouragement as I spotted Simona (also running for Nedbank). I closed her down and passed her just before the summit, but knew that her marathon time is over 10 minutes quicker than mine. I had to push on and make it look easy as if we approached the finish in touching distance, then I'd definitely be out sprinted. Unfortunately, I'd been having stomach problems for the past 40K so couldn't put the effort in that I wanted to. However, I managed to open up a decent gap and Simona remained out of sight as I counted down those final kilometres.

Getting my Gold!!!

I've made it!!!
It was an amazing feeling to run in (past the International enclosure, where I could hear Dave and others cheering me on) holding my red rose (given to mark the top 10 finishers), and be welcomed in by Nick Bester (Nedbank). I had finished 8th (2 behind Ellie as she had moved up to 6th) despite everything (shoes, heel, stomach problems) which was way better than I'd possibly imagined just a few hours earlier, and I really couldn't believe it!

Nick with the Nedbank Golden Girls
Team Scotland

What an amazing experience Comrades is......and all I can say is a huge thanks to everyone who helps me be a part of it!