Run Training, Ultra Style

“I pay no attention whatsoever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I was thirty-seven kilometres into my long run on Sunday when I started to feel a little peckish. In an uncharacteristic move for this time of year (when I should normally be found pottering about some mountain range on Sunday mornings), I had simply rolled out of bed a few hours earlier and made my way from village to sleepy village along the local long-distance coastal path. One distinct benefit of this was in my moment of hunger, I found myself surrounded by a plethora of shops, cafes and takeaway restaurants. Thus, it didn’t take long before my journey saw me power-hiking along the waterfront while merrily chomping into a veggie burger, that classing “relentless forward progress” mentality firmly embraced.

Naturally, that was also the precise moment when my path was crossed by an acquaintance.

“Is THIS what you do when you say you are out running?”

While I can understand her bewilderment, I’m afraid to confess that at the time my response was limited to a feeble attempt to defend my actions, which – hindered by a mouthful of veggie burger – came out as nothing more than an incomprehensible mumble.

It was only when she was long past that I embraced the truth of the matter. Actually, my answer should have been: “YES! This is exactly what I do when I say I’m out running.”

And what is more, I am not even ashamed.

In other news, I did not get a place in the London Marathon. I’m thinking that may be a good thing; it may be the biggest party on earth, but I’m just not sure how the organisers would feel about me stopping for a pub lunch half way around the course…

Shake

Turn of the Tides

Autumn in Scotland(The Hermitage, Dunkeld, in all its autumn glory)

I have never felt the need to prove anything to anyone with my running; certainly not to other people, but not even to myself. For me, the only real tragedy when running would be if I didn’t enjoy myself. So right now, while my body is still feeling the aftershocks of a very nasty chest infection, I am more than happy to give it the rest that it needs. I decided to bow out of the Cologne Marathon before I even made it to the start line: I’ve always said that I run to be happy and healthy, and I am pleased to say that I have found it very easy to live by those words.

I still run almost every day, but these days I’m very relaxed about it. No watch, no hill sprints, no intervals, no tempo runs. Instead, I am enjoying one easy off road run after the next. It’s brought me much peace, and the intense connection with nature has allowed me to fully embrace and enjoy the changing seasons. This summer has been nothing short of amazing, but I’m now ready to run through autumn and into winter. Bring on the long sleeved tops and chocolate-fuelled long runs!

I have no doubt that the lust to run fast will return – I suspect that it will resurface the moment after I have coughed for the last time. I’m signed up for the Jedburgh Ultramarathon in a month time, and am already getting very excited about that. Sure, I’m not as fit or fast as I was at the start of the year, and very much doubt that I’ll manage another second place finish. Instead, I look at it as my lap of honour; a chance to celebrate a great year of running.

I wish you all peace and balance on this equinox and new moon. Can you feel the changing seasons?

3 peaks autumn(The “Three Peaks”, Jedburgh Ultramarathon)

I am on a journey; with my thoughts, my dreams and my running. Running is my teacher, and with each step I learn a little more about life. I respect the distance but keep testing the limits. I don’t let my demons chase me; instead I am becoming a master hunter. Happiness is not my destination; the journey itself keeps bringing me a wild sense of freedom and unbridled joy. I am on a quest for peace, balance and quiet bliss. I am a seeker, an explorer, a runner!

Toiling Titans

The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

 “The point of mythology is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we’re going.”

 – J. Michael Straczynski

 (This post was written jointly by Julia – aka Girl Runs Wild – and Liz, her titan in crime in their latest running adventure.)

Last Saturday morning, Liz and I arrived on the slopes of Mount Olympus (otherwise known as Church Stretton High School in Shropshire, England) for the organiser’s briefing on the 12 Labours of Hercules event; an ultramarathon of 78 miles which included a leg scrambling 17000 feet of ascend, all of which had to be completed within 24 hours. We were on a mission to become titans. Let me assure you that this, for once, had nothing to do with evil plans of world domination. (*cough*). No, runners who had teamed up to take on the 12 Labours of Hercules together were called “Titans” by the race director. Who are we to argue with that? Over the course of the weekend, this pair of lady titans became known as “Caledonian Calamity” and by Zeus, did we live up to our name!

Lomg Mynd(The Long Mynd – picture taken by Richard Weremiuk)

At around 9 in the morning, Richard the Race Director finally revealed the twelve routes we would have to cover in order to complete the event. Standing in the school assembly hall, we were hanging onto his every word. Nobody knows if our undivided attention was due to the fact that our environment had triggered a long forgotten “attentive pupil” mode, or if we were all just really damn terrified that we were going to get lost at some point… probably in countless hills of the Long Mynd… almost certainly at night… with a malfunctioning headtorch thrown in for good measure… and… oh my God… have there been any “Big Cat” sightings in Shropshire lately?!?! STOP! MIND BE MY SERVANT! JUST LISTEN TO THE MAN.

Labours Briefing(Mount Olympus – photo by Wendy Weremiuk)

So, we listened, and it really didn’t sound all that bad while we were still standing on solid ground, surrounded by one hundred supremely rested and carb-loaded athletes who were chomping on their hydration bottles and raring to be unleashed upon the hills. Our task sounded simple enough; we had to visit 12 different checkpoints in the surrounding hills, and there we had to complete Herculean tasks such as wrestling supernatural lions, slaying ancient monsters, stealing flesh-eating equines, competing in ancient Olympic games and entering the underworld.

Did I say ‘enter the underworld’? Sorry, what I was meant to say is that we had to complete tasks like navigating to a cave or retrieving an item from a mountain top. After completion of each labour, the participants had to return to Mount Olympus with proof of their victory; solo competitors had to compete the whole caboodle by themselves, while those working in pairs or teams could decide to buddy up on tasks or complete the tasks individually and consecutively by using a kind of ‘tag team’ system.

Before setting out on her first official Herculean journey, Liz got the first calamity points of the day by warming up with an impromptu labour titled ‘mending her backpack five minutes before the flipping start’. As it turned out, her dog Alfie had chewed one of the buckles to smithereens, but a keyring and strategically positioned knot eventually prevented the pack from flailing about her back as though it was trying to escape this ultra-running madness.

Immediately after this frenzy, Liz set off on her mission to capture the Cretan Bull, as aspiring titans do just after breakfast. For this task, she had to climb up a ridiculously steep hill to the checkpoint, where she got further instructions to climb up the ridiculously steep hill’s ridiculously steep twin brother to find the labour. Thankfully, this did not involve dragging an actual cow off the mountain and into the school assembly hall. No, Liz merely had to retrieve a ring and her biggest challenge on her journey back to Olympus was to not get muddled up in her mythologies and to resist the call of Mordor.

Meanwhile, at Mount Olympus, Julia set an Olympic record in the number of times she visited the loo in the space of the 32 minutes before Liz’s return. Oh, and she also found out from Richard the Race Director that the hill Liz was climbing was in fact, the most ridiculously steep hill of them all. However, it sadly was far from being the highest…

As soon as Liz had returned the ring of Sauron… uhm, I mean the Cretan Bull, Julia zoomed off to the underworld on a mission to capture Cerberus. Did I just say underworld again? What she really did was zoom off to find a hidden cave on top of a REALLY big hill. Being really big, the hill itself was easy to find, and it wasn’t long before Julia was huffing and puffing up the ludicrously steep slopes of Caer Caradoc. Because she knew for certain that these slopes were not, in fact, ridiculously steep, she did two things; firstly, she told her bursting lungs and quads that they had nothing to complain about. Secondly, she had a very tough talk with herself about not being a pansie on the eventual descend. The location of the really very secret cave was easily exposed to her by the horde of runners who were entering it, and after a brief stint in the underworld Julia came flying down the slopes of the not-quite-ridiculously-steep-hill. Literally.

In hindsight, she could have taken crashing into a fence about half way down the hill as a reminder that slowing down was an option. But because slowing down is obviously only for pansies, she proceeded to either utilise a super fast descending technique (i.e. slithering down on her bare legs and hands), or committed the second calamity of the day. It really just depends on whether you’ve pitched your tent in the camp of half-full or half-empty glasses. In any case, her descend was fast indeed and she emerged from her battle with Cerberus bloodied and covered in dust but, more to point, vigorously triumphant. Back at Olympus, she sent a slightly worried looking Liz off to calamity number three, otherwise known as the retrieval of the Girdle of Hypolyta.

This labour saw Liz enjoy what was possibly the only flat 2 mile section of the whole day. Only at this point the temperatures had soared to something very hot indeed, all while being accompanied by humidity levels of a dripping 95%, so she didn’t exactly express her joy by skipping down the road while singing folk songs to herself (that’s what Julia did approximately 12 hours later, but it had nothing to do with enjoyment then either). She then had to follow a long and winding path up a hill which was serendipitously called “Grindle”, where she found the checkpoint and instructions to take the path to the right to find the mythical Girdle of Hypolyta. Little did she know that she was in for calamity number 3, as the instructions had sent her on the wrong right path. There was, in fact, another right path, and taking the wrong right path lost us a few minutes of time. The right right path soon dwindled to nothing, so Liz continued with a heather-bashing stomp to reach a cairn adorned with an array of multi-coloured belts. And no, she wasn’t hallucinating. Yet. Thus, she grabbed a girdle from the summit of Grindle and stomped her way back down the right right path, which now had to be the right left path, right?

Long Mynd(The beautiful, painful hills of the Long Mynd – photo by Richard Weremiuk)

Julia, meanwhile, was enjoying the wonderful atmosphere at Olympus. The fact that all runners frequently returned to Olympus meant that she got to cheer on the leaders as they dipped in and out, patted the backs of those who were doing well and gave hugs and encouragement to those who were struggling. All in all, there was much enjoyable banter to be had at Olympus. In fact, the only thing that was more abundant than banter was the food. Wendy, Richard’s wife, somehow managed to fathom up an ever changing buffet of food, and Richard himself was always on hand to offer tips, encouragement and advice. Thus, while stuffing her face, a cleaned up Julia learned that they were currently amongst the top four teams and were, in fact, the only female team in the whole competition. With nothing to lose, in her head, the game was on!

After checking in at Olympus, Liz went out again to quickly slay the Stymphalian Birds. For this labour, she travelled up Carding Mill Valley, navigated through an army of picnickers and children splashing around in the pretty little stream, past the ICE CREAM SHOP and up, up, up to the checkpoint. Then down, down, down (I pity the fool who still doesn’t understand the fundamental nature of this event!), past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN and back to Olympus, where a fully satiated Julia was ready to go hunt for more food. The Apples of Hesperides, that is.

This eight mile run was the flattest of the lot, which really wasn’t very flat at all. Rather than going up one big hill, the roads and paths to this labour just kept on rolling along the pretty Shropshire countryside. On the plus side, navigation to the apples (found in a place called Peartree!) was easy, even if the run itself left her out of breath approximately every other minute. The difficulty was enhanced primarily because Julia had entered race mode at this point, and was seen hurling herself around the undulating paths like a dispossessed wilderbeast. Don’t worry, she didn’t fall again. However, as a testimony to her speed and in a move that is worryingly out of character for an ultramarathon runner, she returned the Apple of Hesperides to Olympus without having taken even the slightest nibble of the forbidden fruit…

Continuing her killing spree, a bloodthirsty Liz then went on her journey to slay the nine-headed Hydra. This run basically involved her going onwards and upwards, although more upwards than onwards and then even more upwards. You get the idea. After crossing some fields she embarked on a stooped staggery run/stumble down a tiny path with overhanging branches and stingy nettles to slay the Hydra. That sounded simple. It wasn’t.

When Julia set out to capture the Golden Hind of Artemis, she was painfully aware that this was the longest run of the lot, that it was the last run she’d be completing in daylight and that the complex navigation for this route had heaps of potential to lead her firmly down the path towards calamity number four. Prior to setting out, she therefore put on her racing flats, studied the route in detail and in a desperate move proceeded to write the directions all over her forearms. And you know what? It worked! The fact that she arrived at the checkpoint and labour location resembling a badly tattooed pirate is a minor detail, because she happened to complete this particular labour faster than anyone else in the whole competition! At the checkpoint, she had to compete in a Herculean version of the Olympic games, which included a scooter slalom, a round of darts and target shooting with frisbees. Regrettably, Julia was still in racing-flat-induced-tattoo-guided-speed-mode while attempting to complete these tasks, which resulted in her failing to hit a single target and it took three officials to stop her from running off with the scooter on her way back to Olympus. Oooops.

Liz then went out on bovine adventure number two, for which she had to face the monster Greyon and obtain his cattle. This required her to run past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN, and up a scrambley path onto Cow Ridge. There, she briefly enjoyed the stunning views of the valley but decided that we really didn’t have time to take photos of the stunning views. And this time, Liz really did have to bring a cow down from the mountain. A small plastic one, that is. She scrambled down the mountain, and yes, you’ve guessed it… past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN… and back to Olympus.

After a speedy change of out her running clothes into her best housewife attire, Liz went forth to clean the Augean stables. This labour required her to cross the whole of the Long Mynd; so more upwards and onwards, followed by downwards and onwards into Bridges and return. A the mist descended upon her and darkness fell, Liz did her best not to think about Stephen King’s book “The Fog”. She was very glad to have taken a road route rather than an alternative route across the open moorlands as she’s also a pansie and was getting a wee bit freaked out about being out in the misty mountains, in the darkness, surrounded by sheep, foxes, big cats and … what was that?!?… oh, a toad.

Reality Tale

Upon her arrival following the victorious completion of epic domestic duties, Liz was informed by a very bouncy Julia that they were currently in second place. The bouncing was not so much a result of excitement; rather, Julia had consumed copious amounts of caffeine at this point in order to a) stay awake (it was almost midnight) and b) psych herself up to go run across the moorlands that had already terrified Liz. In the dark. In the very foggy dark. With the big cats and stuff. Her mission: to steal the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes. Let’s just say that this is where all the skipping and singing started for real. At the top of the Long Mynd, Julia finally encountered the big cats, or rather, some wild unicorns. Ponies. I mean ponies. She briefly contemplated how Richard the Race Director would feel about her stealing an actual horse and if this would release her from the task of having to run first down, and then back up a road with a 25% gradient… She eventually opted for the version that would not earn her a criminal record and trotted down the stupidly steep road into the little village of Handless, where at one o’clock in the morning she stuck her hand into a bucket of icey goo to retrieve a severed finger… Nice.

Long Mynd Unicorn(A unicorn on the Long Mynd?!?! – picture taken by Richard Weremiuk)

Meanwhile, at Olympus, Liz was studying the route that would lead her to the Erymanthean Boar, which she had to capture next. Because we had deemed this to be a wee half-mile out, half-mile back tootle up and down a little hill, we had saved this particular labour for the hours of darkness. But then someone called it “the Hill of Doom”. Then came reports from other competitors who had failed to reach the summit of the wee Hill of Doom altogether. This made Liz a little twitchy, so while she waited for Julia to return from her storming run with the wild horses and associated retrieval of severed body parts, Liz fretted, repeatedly checked the map, visited the loo again and again and picked the brains of all and any available people. Rumour has it that the caretaker of the school grounds is still recovering from being shaken by the shoulders and interrogated about the summit of the “Hill of Doom” at two o’clock in the morning… But Liz bravely faced the night, found – and passed – the FOOD FACTORY, flew by the Atheneum Temple (strange juxtaposition of landmarks!), tiptoed over the cattle grid, squelched up the re-entrant, scuffled and fought through gorse and heather and schlepped on up to the top of the wee hill where she found a (non-burning) bush containing the checkpoint. TRIUMPH! From there she retrieved two modelling balloons and failed to make a balloon sword. Although this was what the task called for, at two in the morning on top of a hill that had robbed her lungs of air, she decided against nurturing her creative spirit and carried two limp balloons down the hill. As it turned out, this was entirely okay as most balloon swords had perished on the descent through the Hill of Doom’s gorse bushes of doom anyway.

Finally, we embarked on our last labour together, not because the Nemean Lion would be hard to slay, but because the hill we had to climb in order to reach the beast was a wee bit tricky to navigate in the dark, especially with tired head torches, maps that have been soaked in rain, sweat and tears for the better part of 17 hours and brains that would rather be sleeping. And although we had stopped counting calamities long ago, we didn’t want to add another one to the list at three o’clock in the morning. Our combined navigation efforts soon saw us schlepping up the slopes of Ragleth. In truth, it was a wonderfully surreal experience. At this point, we were no longer able to move quickly and took our time with the navigation. The night was so quiet, so beautiful, so peaceful. Together, side by side, we felt at ease in the darkness. Gone were the thoughts of big cats and Steven King. Instead, we both just agreed that the views from the top of this hill are sure to be amazing in the light of day. We located the checkpoint with ease, and slowly trotted back down the hill, heading for Olympus one last time. A calamity-free labour! Above all, it seemed fitting to complete our adventure together.

Back in the sanctity of Olympus, neither of us could really believe what had just happened. How could it be 3:30 in the morning already? Between us, we had covered 78 miles in 17 hours and 31 minutes, completed 12 epic labours and climbed more hills than we could shake our dying head torches at. What is more, we had held on to the second place position, which was just as good as world domination, really.

Labours Trophy(We didn’t get a medal. We didn’t need a medal. We got a much cooler trophy for our efforts!)

What followed was another day of competition of ultra proportions (this time in the disciplines of eating and sleeping) which saw Julia and Liz battling and giggling it out yet again. No breadstick, chocolate bar, fruit salad, jellybaby, panini, popcorn, baguette, apple, pastry or snickers ice-cream was safe. And let’s just say that this in particular contest, there were no second places.

Thus, we really were titans…

Alice: “But that is impossible!” 

The Mad Hatter: “Only if you believe it is.”

We would like to say a huge thank you to Richard and Wendy for putting on such a fantastic event, and to all the fellow competitors, all of whom are heroes in their own right. Friends were made at Olympus that day and who knows where these new friendships will take us? New journeys and adventures begin every day…

 “Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science, mythology is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

 – Karen Armstrong

Confessions Of An Ultra Runner

Now that I can officially call myself an ultramarathon runner, I think it’s about time that I come clean about what this gloriously graceful sport has done to me over the past few months…

Thus, I will use this space on my wall, my friends, to confess some of my deepest, darkest running secrets (in no particular order):

  • Members of my inner posse take great joy in belittling the fact that I wear dresses, skirts and shorts only in combination with boots. My well-rehearsed response to this is to merrily claim that the cowgirl look is a deliberate attempt to honour the years of my life that I spent living in the Wild West. But deep inside, I know that the world is just not ready to be exposed to the carnage that is my toenails.
  • Whenever I happen to run an 8 minute mile, I consider my weekly sprint workout completed.
  • My speedwork consists almost exclusively of people-leking these days. You know, I go out for a run, but instead of running intervals or even doing a fartlek session, I just run a little faster whenever there’s someone around who can actually see me.
  • After I run, I usually devour volumes of food that would probably leave a beast emerging from hibernation feel somewhat queasy. What I really mean to say is that I pretty much always eat anything that isn’t nailed down somehow. As far as nutritional strategies go, that one’s a winner.
  • In order to run, I bribe myself with chocolate. A lot. Need to get up that hill? Have chocolate at the top! Feeling tired after 25km? No problem! I just tell myself that I can have a Snickers when I reach 30 km… It works every time. However, I have no idea how I’ll ever race a marathon again (that doesn’t involve a chocolate orgy and associated bribery).
  • At the end of a long run, I find nothing more comforting than immediately getting out of my sweaty running clothes and into something warm, dry and comfy. That’s precisely how I came to stand in the buff in full view of a group of hardcore bikers in a parking lot the other day. I’m not even ashamed.
  • While I’m on the topic of cozy clothes: because my pyjamas happen to be the most comfy clothes that I own, it’s only logical that I should change into them after a long run, right? Then I drive home. I pity the fool who thinks that this attire would somehow deter me from walking into a petrol station and buying a Cornetto for the road.
  • Toilet paper is the single most important piece of kit I carry. It’s never on any mandatory kit list and nobody ever dares talk about it (as though it’s against some secret code… hang on, is there a secret code?!?). However, it’s hands down the biggest life saver out there, ever.
  • Hills are to me now what a bell was to Pavlov’s dog… The association between inclines and food has become so robust in my head that my stomach actually grumbled the other day when I was driving up a multi-storey carpark ramp. It defies the laws of my nature to attempt a hill workout in the absence of a Snickers bar. Yes, that includes hill sprints night at my local running club. I don’t care about the funny looks I get, it takes either a lot of chocolate or a violent temper tantrum to get me up those hills.
  • And finally, I’m beginning to think that I may be committing an act of fraud by calling myself a runner. In reality, I do a lot of plodding around. Downhill sections see my technique and form change to something that might best be described as “controlled falling”. And whenever I’m faced with any hill that might actually be a worthy opponent, it automatically triggers a “fuel break” response, which forces me to walk while stuffing something calorific in my face all the way up. At best, I think it’s fair to say that the notion of me being a runner has a tenuous relationship with the truth.

?????????

(A rare sight: a fledgling ultramarathon runner caught in the act of running)

“Enjoying your runs will be the make or break of whether you stick with it or not. Quite simply, if we don’t enjoy something, we don’t do it!”

–       Sara Kirkham

One Epic Chase On The Cateran Trail

Do you know the feeling when everything just seems to fall into place and things feel as though they are somehow meant to me? In many ways, I feel that way about my ultra run of the Cateran Trail.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch, on the beautiful Cateran Trail)

It was during the long cold winter months that I first began to ponder the possibility of venturing beyond the marathon. Naturally, given my love of trail and hill running, as well as the joy I get from endurance running challenges, it was only a matter of time before my imagination would be captured by the world of ultramarathon running. At the start of the year, I made plans to run one of Scotland’s wonderful long distance trails over the course of a long weekend, as a first exploration of what running very long distances off road might involve. Almost immediately, I found myself flirting with the Cateran Trail; it’s not too far away from where I live and at 55 miles a good, medium length ultra distance – not to mention the fact that it’s a stunningly beautiful trail with very varied territory and a total ascend of almost 3 kilometres.

By February I was in the process of researching accommodation along the route, very much ready to put my plan into action. Just then, I got an e-mail from Liz, who I had met once before at a fell race. In that fateful e-mail, Liz serendipitously asked me if I wanted to run the Cateran Yomp with her and Louise this summer… Isn’t it funny how life has a knack for handing us exactly what we are searching for?

The Cateran Yomp is a fundraising challenge event for the ABF Soldier’s Charity, which requires teams of participants to take on a 55 mile trek (along the Cateran Trail) through the Perthshire Highlands. Liz and Louise had completed it the year before, and right from the start our plan had been to run the distance.

Thus, following a very nifty spring marathon in Rome, my training for the Cateran Yomp started in earnest back in April. I remember feeling a little weak in the knees whenever I glanced at my training plan and the many miles it called for. However, as it turned out, I have found the build-up to the event so rewarding in and by itself that the final event began to feel like the lap of honour I got to run in celebration of a wonderful training cycle. I was always aware that running an ultra would be primarily a mental challenge, but before I embarked on this journey I had never expected to find it so spiritually fulfilling. If nothing else, the many hours spent alone out in the mountains gave me much time to think and feel and play and dream, all while doing something I love and surrounded by amazing natural beauty. All these long runs have led me to countless weird and wonderful places, both mentally and physically, many of which I am sure will stay with me forever. I can think of few things that I would find more rewarding.

On the eve of battle, we all gathered in a field near Blairgowrie, which had been set up to an impressive standard to function as the Yomp Headquarters and campsite for the weekend. The atmosphere was fantastic; 570 people had gathered to take on the Cateran Yomp, with over 100 teams aiming to complete the whole distance. What was more, because it happened to be Armed Forces Day, 120 serving soldiers had joined the event, including a group of US Marines, the UK Parachute Regiment, and a team of Gurkhas (who have run exceptionally fast times in the past few years).

The competition was fierce between the different military teams, but nobody paid much attention to this random women’s non-military fundraising team. You can probably imagine their surprise (and our pleasure), when we got to lead them on a wild chase through the Scottish wilderness the following day.

Yomp Start(Louise, myself and Liz – in that order – about to embark on our big adventure)

We set out at 7 am on a cloudy morning, and right from the start we stuck to our strategy of walking up any hills and running everything else. This took a hefty helping of self-control on our part, as after running out of the start area, we got to stretch out our legs for a phenomenal 100 yard of road before – boom! – we were walking up our first hill. It sure felt rather silly at the time, but trust me, 12 hours later, we were glad to have stuck to our guns!

Two or three kilometres onto the trail, there was only one other runner in sight (who happened to be one of the founders of the Cateran trail). We brushed shoulders and chatted with him a few times over the next 20 kilometres or so, but eventually we left him behind and the trail ahead was ours alone.

I should add at this point that the feared gurkhas were unleashed upon the course and hour after we had started. We were fully expecting them to pass us at any point, and I glanced over my shoulder more often than I care to admit. The simple question of “I wonder what happened to the gurkhas?” was a frequently and hotly debated topic as we made our way through the wilderness. However, our explanations as to why they haven’t passed us yet became increasingly wilder and far-fetched as the day progressed. Shortly after the half way-point, just about every statement I uttered started with the words “In my head… “, and whatever rational thoughts remained were lost the moment I began to giggle at the fact that my feet were wet.

Yomp Glenisla(Delirious smiles at a checkpoint around 37 miles into the race. We were so happy to see Bill, our fantastic support person – who took these pictures – waiting for us with dry socks and shoes. Ah, the little things in life!)

Over the course of the next few hours, we nevertheless enjoyed the privilege of being the first participants to visit the aid stations. This not only meant that we could gorge ourselves on the untouched and perfectly symmetrical mountains of chocolate and crisps and cakes that the yomp had to offer; it also meant that we got to enjoy the undivided attention and admiration of the volunteers at each aid station. Their enthusiasm certainly contributed to our relentless forward progress.  Although the responses we got were overwhelmingly supportive and positive, there was one fool of a volunteer at the penultimate aid station who evidently thought he was being funny when he decided to mess with a girl who had just run in excess of 80 kilometres for fun. While I was busy answering a call of nature, he must thought it would be a good idea to shout dumb comments at me, followed by what I can only describe as a very dirty laugh indeed. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide if he lived to tell the tale or if the wolves of Drimmie wood are gnawing on his bones as I type this…

Although the conditions were good, the run itself was, of course, not always easy; there were swamps to traverse and mountains to climb and one serious downpour we had to weather during the day. Liz and Louise both battled with blisters and I had twisted an ankle only 20 kilometres into the run. In addition, I spent the last hour of our journey wrestling with a stomach that was on the verge of staging a dirty riot. Despite all of this, my overwhelming feeling was one of serene enjoyment. The journey was absolutely epic and more than anything, I felt confident in my ability to tackle whatever beast might rear its ugly head along the way. My body was strong and powerful from the many hours of training and my faithful legs were happy to carry me all day long.

It was towards the end of our run that things started to get seriously epic. Our first clue that something special might happen came in the form of random supporters, who were clearly related to the event, and who had come out to meet and greet us at several road crossings along the way. At one point two official looking men met us in a forest and pleaded with us to slow down long enough to allow them to snap a photo of us, which made us laugh and oblige. We were still somehow leading the whole race at this point, still wondering what on earth had happened to the gurkhas…

When we finally arrived back in Blairgowrie, we received a reception which quickly deluded us into believing that we were skyrunning celebrities. We were effectively the first team to cross the finish line, and in no bad way at all, the first thing I personally did was to burst into tears. This turned out to be rather embarrassing, as there were reporters waiting to take pictures of us, and I just bawled into their cameras for a little while. There were hugs and more tears and champagne (which none of us was fit to drink!) and more pictures. More hugs, more pictures, more cheers. Then, when two reporters asked us for quotes and an interview for a newspaper article, we uttered what I now firmly believe were the least coherent and uninspired phrases that have ever been heard on the meadows of Perthshire. With our bodies tired from fatigue and our brains twisted after hours and hours of focussing on happily plodding along, I think the reporters should consider themselves lucky to not have been trampled to death by our stampede to the food tent.

Yomp Finish Back(Just… epic!)

The gurkhas finally made their appearance only minutes after we had finished our journey. Although they never managed to pass us on the course, they did of course beat us by time, completing the 55 mile Cateran trail in just over 12 hours. However, our finishing time of 12 hours and 55 minutes made us the second fastest team of the day, as well as the fastest female team and fastest non-military team. We went back later to cheer some of the other soldiers across the finish line, and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t feel really cool to have so many of the soldiers, organisers and other competitors come up to shake our hands (in the shower block, over dinner, on the way to the toilets, on the finish line, going to bed, emerging from our tents, over breakfast…) to congratulate us for our speedy traverse of the wilderness.

Yomp Finish Laugh(Note the champagne making a sneaky entrance from the left…)

Please don’t get me wrong though; I have nothing but respect for what these guys are doing every day. I know that in the real world, I would have nothing on these soldiers in terms of toughness and endurance. However, it’s nice to know that in this one particular niche event, this trio of crazy ladies could give an army of very fit young men a run for their money.

As for my recovery, let it suffice for now to say that I spent the following day eating and sleeping like a feral beast. This is not an exaggeration; I woke up at 4 in the morning and proceeded to eat like an animal that has just emerged from hibernation, devouring anything and everything that wasn’t firmly nailed down until I went back to hibernate just after lunchtime. I woke up briefly around midnight, put on my pyjamas and went back to sleep until my alarm clock told me it was time to get up for work on Monday morning. Which I did, feeling surprisingly human.

I couldn’t have wished for a more wonderful introduction to ultramarathon running. I think that every normal runner, upon completion of their first marathon, immediately vows to never do such a crazy thing ever again. It usually takes a few weeks or months to forget the pain and then the mind slowly begins to ponder the “what ifs” and dares to try again. In my case, however, my first taste of ultra running has done nothing but leaving me hungry for more. I guess I’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be champagne and reporters and celebrity receptions at the end of every race from now on…

Ladies, it’s been an honour running with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Yomp finish(Tired, but oh so happy and definitely hungry for more!)

Into the Footprints of Legends

“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 BGR Robinson

(Getting that “feet in the clouds” feeling!)

Last weekend, my world was centred on a little holiday flat in the Lake District, where thirteen of us had gathered for what promised to be an unforgettable weekend. Armed only with our fell running shoes, a wooden relay baton, a plethora of maps and timetables and a seemingly endless supply of crisps and cookies, we had joined forces in order to take on the mighty Billy Bland Challenge (a relay of the infamous Bob Graham Round).

The location of our base camp could not have been more fitting for our amazing adventures, as we stayed on the dreamy shores of Ullswater and in the shadow of Helvellyn, one of the highest mountains in England. The latter had a special meaning for me, as in 2010 I had attempted to climb the mountain in winter but due to deteriorating weather conditions had abandoned my bid for the summit shortly before reaching Swirral ridge – only to find out the next day that two walkers had died on the mountain shortly after I had made my retreat. The experience served as a sobering reminder that we must always respect the mountains (as an extension of nature in general).

But just before we embarked on our very own running adventure across the fells of the Lake District, it just so happened that someone else’s were coming to their own incomprehensibly epic conclusion. On the same night that saw us enjoying our pre-run pasta orgy in Glenridding, Steve Birkinshaw was due to complete his titanic run of all the Wainwrights; a route which saw him running a total of 515 km (320 miles), across the summits of 214 fells with a total ascend of 36,000 m (118,000 ft). I genuinely can’t think of any adjectives that could adequately enhance my description of this truly epic feat, so I’ll just leave you with the facts and trust that your minds will boggle just like mine has done (and still does!). He completed the round in 6 days and 13 hours, and in doing so not only broke Joss Naylor’s record which has stood since 1987, but also raised many thousands of pounds for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, a condition which his sister suffers. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see him finish his incredible journey for the world, so late at night, when everyone else was being sensible by climbing into their bunk beds and sleeping bags, I made my way to the Moot Hall in Keswick to cheer this legend of a man across the finish line.

Steve Birkinshaw

(A night to remember: the legend that is Steve Birkinshaw)

So when Louise and I (cheered on by the rest of the team) found ourselves standing on the steps of the very same Moot Hall the next morning with our minds on a mission to blaze the trail of Bob Graham to Honister Pass (i.e. leg one of an anti-clockwise Bob Graham round), I can’t deny that it felt rather iconic and special. We were about to step into the footsteps of many, many incredible athletes who have tested themselves on the fells of the Lake District before us.

Our original plan was to begin our journey at 7am, but because we were all a bit nervous, we did what nervous runners do best, and at 6:45 we all embarked on a warm-up relay to and from the parking lot loos, which we finished in an official record time of 20 minutes.

Then, finally, at 7:05, Louise and I dashed off down the High Street of Keswick, which much to our general amusement elicited precisely absolutely no reaction whatsoever from the locals who were setting up their market stalls. Clearly, they are used to this kind of behaviour from obsessive fell runners and have taken to politely ignoring it. Our plan was to blast along the 6 mile road section to the base of our first hill as fast as we could; an objective which we more or less achieved, despite two seriously adversarial forces acting against us. Firstly, the “road” we were running would be the perfect setting for a most masochistic hill sprint workout, and the sun itself had risen with a fierce determination to fry us up for breakfast at 7am.

BGR leaving Keswick

(And we are off!)

But we kept our heads down and carried on, and soon enough we reached the base of Robinson. A stiff climb and a scramble later, we stood at the summit of our first fell. From then on, the going was a lot easier, and we could simply cruise along the flanks of the mountains to the next summit on our route, Hindscarth.

Although our task was to keep shifting, I still had plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from the top of the world. The sun was out to get us with a vengeance, despite it still being very early in the morning. Dripping in sweat, we were near the summit of Hindscarth when we commented on the fact that we seemingly had the fells to ourselves that morning.

BGR Hindscarth

(Reaching for the sky)

I can only assume that it was precisely because we said these words out loud that we encountered at least 50 hill walkers on the summit of Dale Head. They were all wearing event numbers and were very official looking. On the plus side, though, I can’t deny that a very wicked part of me derived a great about of pleasure and satisfaction in charging past them down the slopes of the mountain.

Although I was a little sad to not have spent more time in the mountains, it was awesome to be welcomed and cheered into Honister Pass by our team after 2 hours and 34 minutes. We exchanged some quick hugs and cheered and hollered the next two runners up the steep slope of Grey Knotts. The running part of my journey was over as quickly as it had begun.

And breathe. I returned to the headquarters and showered and ate cookies and crisps until I felt vaguely human again. Back on the ground, the atmosphere was abuzz with maps and timetables and code text message such as “Pillar 12:03”. However, there wasn’t much more for me to do at this point; as I was a last minute addition to the team, I had not been planned in for any duties in terms of logistics or support. I felt a little bit bad about that, but upon eating my eights cooking of the day I remembered how nice it felt to be cheered on at Honister Pass and decided to nominate myself as the official team cheerleader.

As it was, the official cheerleader started by failing miserably at the first hurdle. I sadly missed the next handover entirely; partially because eating cookies took longer than I thought, and Wasdale Pass happens to be a long drive away from the shores of Ullswater. But most importantly, Caroline and Louise had seemingly soared across the fells and had covered their part of the route in a magnificently quick 4 hours and 6 minutes!

There was not much for me to do but to guard and periodically quality control the cookies and crisps at operation headquarters for the rest of the afternoon, look at more maps – or rather, the same maps over and over again. Slowly and subtly, I felt a shift in the mood of our little troupe…  At the start of the day, our general agreement had been to just enjoy the challenge and see what happens. However, due to the fact that we were covering the ground faster than we thought, by the time dusk arrived it began to dawn upon us that there was a possibility that we could complete the challenge in 24 hours…

I’m pleased to report that the official cheerleader was actually present at Dunmail Raise, where I witnessed the very exciting descend of Anita and Liz on the tricky slopes of Steel Fell and cheered to be best of my abilities when they handed the baton over at 8:13 pm. I won’t deny that I felt a little envious when I watched Moira and Cathy trek into the sunset; the gorgeous day was promising to turn into an even more stunning night for us all.

But for now, we headed back to headquarters for about an hour of sleep and more crisps and cookies. A few hours later, we got a text message (“Clough Head 0:52”) which sent us driving across the Lake District at a speed that would surely have left Buzz Lightyear a little green around the nose, as the leg 4 runners had kept to the general pattern of the day and had exceeded all expectations. The final handover at Threlkeld was rushed and there wasn’t much cheering either, despite the presence of the world’s worst cheerleader. It turns out that apart from those who are loopy enough to take on the Bob Graham loop, most people in the Lake District prefer to sleep in silence around 2 am in the morning.

BGR Night

(Sleepy cheering on the verge of dawn)

If I was jealous of the evening runners, it was nothing compared to what I felt when I saw the headlights of Ally and Charlotte fade onto the slopes of Blencathra. Despite the fact that it was stupid o’clock, the first signs of light were glistering on the horizon and the night was illuminated by a sickle moon.

Another hour of sleep and more cookies and crisps and brewing over maps at operation headquarters later, the joyous text message of “Skiddaw 6:03” sent us all on our way to Keswick once more.

Now, I realise that there is nothing that can possibly excuse what I did next. I would nevertheless like to reiterate that it was very early in the morning indeed, and those of your who know me should realise by now that I cannot be passed for a human being before 10:30 am on any given day. I’d enjoyed a full two hours of sleep during the previous night and had left the flat before even contemplating breakfast (apart from crisps and cookies, but I stopped counting them long ago). Furthermore, I had not taken anything with me, as my plan was to head up Skiddaw to meet the last runners, fulfil my cheering duties and accompany them on the last kilometre of their journey, perhaps offering to carry one of their backpacks down the mountain.

It was another glorious morning, and a zombiefied me greatly enjoyed a little morning jog out of Keswick and up into the mountains once more. I stopped after about 20 minutes of climbing and turned around to marvel at the views of yet another magnificent break of day. Beneath me, Derwent Water lay sleepily in the valley, and a glance to the right revealed the inviting flank of mighty Skiddaw… Wait, what? Embarrassingly slowly it dawned upon me that this made no sense at all. Why was Skiddaw on my right? No person in the world with a sense of direction vaguely superior to that of a piece of plywood (or myself for that matter) would journey from Skiddaw down to Keswick via the peak of Latrigg, which is where I had finally derived that I must be standing…

Having sacrificed my dignity at dawn to the sun god on the wrong mountain top – not to mention the fact that there was now absolutely no doubt whatsoever that I had earned myself the world’s worst cheerleader badge – I commenced my trot of shame back to the Moot Hall in Keswick, where in a very awkward twist of events, the final runners were the ones who were waiting for me.

Ally and Charlotte had made it back to Keswick at 7:11 am, which meant that we have completed the Billy Bland Challenge in 24 hours and 6 minutes! Naturally, all of us simultaneously blurted out all sorts of suggestions of how we could have run our particular leg a little faster. I’m sure we can do it, although I’m not quite sure how, as everyone talking at the same time isn’t conducive to actually taking anything in. In reality, I can safely say that nobody was even remotely disappointed. I think the challenge so immense that an old cliché couldn’t have been more true; the journey had meant more to us than the destination ever could. Besides, it just means that we will have to do it all again next year!

BGR_Moot Hall

(Full circle: 7am (again) at the Moot Hall (again)!)

I want to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to my fellow runners:  Louise, Caroline, Lou B, Liz, Anita, Moira, Cathy, Ally and Charlotte. You ladies are amazing! Also, we couldn’t have done this without our incredible support crew, consisting of Adrian, Bill and Graham; all of whom possess athletic prowess that put us all to shame but who were nevertheless more than willing to just support us and let us enjoy our moment. Thank you all for letting me be part of this adventure, for a wonderful weekend of teamwork and for being part of memories which I am sure will stay with me for a very long time!

As for little old me, my own journey was not quite over yet. Despite the severe lack of sleep and directionally challenged start to the day, I felt ready and downright needing to embrace the last day in the Lake District. Thus, I turned to face the shadow behind us. A nice and easy jog up Helvellyn seemed like a fitting way to take some time to reflect upon and celebrate my own journey in these mountains.

Helvellyn summit

(Relaxing on the summit of Helvellyn: A wild kind of relaxation.)

After scrambling down Striding Ridge, I once again couldn’t resist the pull of gravity and blazed down the mountain with legs as fresh as they had felt the morning before. About half-way through my charge down the mountain, a middle aged man stepped aside a I passed him and saluted me.

“I wish I could do what you are doing”, he said. I stopped and turned to look at the summit of Helvellyn behind me, with the Red Tarn at its base and the two dramatic ridges leading to peak. In comparison to the day before, it all seemed to tame now.

“Why don’t you?” I smiled back at him. He told me that he “only” runs marathons, and I told him that I find marathons really, really hard! Then, in a moment of supreme immaturity (because some things never change), I blurted out, to a complete stranger, on the slopes of a mountain, what we had been up to the day before.

His response? He shook my hand. It doesn’t matter how far you run, or how fast, or on what surface. Runners just get each other.

 

“While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure they point in a commendable direction.”

– James Branch Cabell

A Full Moon Run Of Legends

Last Friday (the 13th), just after midnight, I met a legend, and together we ran across a nature reserve under the light of the full moon. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

You see, last week, I was on the verge of entering a marathon in Burma. I really wish I had; it sounds totally amazing. But instead, I entered a 78 mile, 24 hour ultramarathon in good old England…

There’s so much I could – or should! – be freaking out about, but right now my main concern is the fact that my surname isn’t Forsberg or Frost. The implication of this is that I’ll have to run at least some of the distance at night. Now add to this the indisputable fact that I am a massive pansie, and we’re firmly into meltdown territory. And because this is one issue that just can’t be solved by avoidant coping or chocolate, I did the sensible thing asked for help on the internet.

My local ultramarathon running group on Facebook is a very friendly and supportive bunch, but before you declare me complete insane, I’d just like to reassure you that I do know some of the members personally. I was hoping that one of them could be persuaded to accompany me on a night run, show me the tricks of the trade and help me get my confidence up a little.

And sure enough, my plea for help was promptly answered – my rescuer a man who everyone in the group refers to only as “the legend”. I’ve never had the privilege of meeting him before myself, but virtually everyone else in the group I have run with has immediately told me all about his considerable running achievements and adventures. How could I resist learning from the very best?

On the eve of battle, however, I wasn’t sure what was freaking me out the most; the general idea of running in the dark, the thought of heading willingly into a remote forest with a strange man, or the prospects of running with someone who’s run over 100 marathons, and literally every ultramarathon I could think of and then some. Yes, including the famous Marathon de Sables. Twice.

forest night

The fact that I have returned from the midnight wilderness to write this post is an unfortunate spoiler of my unscarred survival of the night. Prior to that particular Friday the 13th, I firmly believed that night running could only ever be a miserable affair; I had braced myself for feeling tired, cold, insecure, potentially frightened and most certainly lost.

I can’t think of a time when I’ve never been so wrong about anything. Night running is amazing. Especially in lovely forests, by the light of the full moon and in the company of legends. There was a light drizzle, but the humidity felt warming and coupled with the many glimpses of lush green, gave the whole run an almost tropical feel.

We chatted freely and many giggles rung out into the night. Along the way, I had great fun skipping across the minefield or frogs that were out and about at night. We even stopped for a chocolate break at some point (confirming once again my long held belief that chocolate really does solve every problem) – I’m not sure if running gets any better than this.

Tentsmuir beach night

The legend sure lived up to his name. He was a great guide and taught me about running in the dark, but in doing so I feel that I learned a lot about life. Once again, I experienced that most limits exist only in my mind, and that it is possible to encounter truly amazing territory if I dare to go beyond them.

On a practical note, the legend has shared an incredibly useful night running tip with me, which I’m sure he won’t mind me passing on to you. As soon as we took off, he told me that he never actually wears his head-torch on his head! Instead, he wraps the strap around his wrist and then holds the torch in his hand. I readily followed his advice, and can confirm that it worked very well for me. Using the light this way means that headaches from tight headbands are a thing of the past. It’s also much easier to look around when holding the torch in hand. Fellow runners very much appreciate this technique as well, as it ensures that they won’t constantly get blinded and losing all the night vision just because someone dared to look in their direction. And finally, I’d imagine it looks a lot cooler as well.

Do you have any thoughts on night running? Have you tried it? Do you love it as much as I do?