Atacama Crossing: Learnings

Atacama panorama

It would be fair to say that preparing for the Atacama Crossing was a complete guessing game in terms of kit and training. Although my main objective was to travel as light as possible, I didn’t have an infinite budget to splash on expensive, techy kit that I might only use once. Similarly, living in a big city made it difficult to find trails to train on that replicated the technical desert terrain (hashtag London runner problems). Below are some things that worked well, stuff that didn’t and what I’d do differently next time (hypothetically; I don’t have plans to do another desert race in the immediate future).

Kit

This is by no means a definitive list, as what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. But overall I was really happy with my kit choices: my pack weighted in as one of the lightest and I wasn’t too cold at night, despite having minimal gear.

Salomon Speedcross trainers: Trainers are a very individual thing, but I really loved everything about these. The tread was perfect and they felt sturdy and supportive. They drained well over the multiple river crossings and, most importantly, they didn’t let in any sand, which was a problem for competitors with predominantly mesh trainers.

X-Bionic Fennec top: I liked this – it was comfortable and didn’t chafe, but it didn’t exactly work miracles either. I still felt hot in the heat of the day and reckon a white, technical top at a fraction of the price (it retails at around £90) would have worked just as well.

Skins shorts: I initially felt short-changed when I discovered these didn’t have zips or pockets, but this was probably the best thing about them, as there were no excess features to rub or chafe. Very comfy.

lululemon Stuff Your Bra: supportive running bra with the added bonus of pockets that came in handy for transporting blister tape, loo roll, spork, etc, around camp.

Karrimor anti blister socks: most competitors ran in a combination of toe-socks and Drymax socks, but I stuck with what I was familiar with and was really happy. I had a few blisters but nothing you wouldn’t expect from running 250k across a lot of water and sand.

Inov-8 gaiters: my decision not to take full-shoe gaiters paid off, partly because of my footwear, but these kept out sand where the dunes were over the ankle. I’d use them again.

OMM Adventure light 20l pack: I really loved this bag – it was the perfect size for a small-framed person wanting to race light. In a world where a lot of bags are made for men, this is a great female-friendly option.

Mountain Hardware sleeping bag: this did the job but wasn’t the lightest or warmest out there. If money was no object I’d take a PHD Minimus Down bag next time.

Klymit X-light sleeping frame: I considered not taking a mat but am very glad I did – the race would have been misery and doom without one. Once I’d got the knack of not rolling off it, it was comfy, but I’d be tempted to take a larger, foam one next time, as a lot of time was spent hanging around camp and attempting to stretch, post-running.

Atacama kit1

Fuel: I thought I’d beaten the system when I discovered instant noodles that were of a similar high-calorie-to-gramme ratio as freeze-dried meals and tasted great too (and were a lot cheaper). But in the desert, they got a bit monotonous and I struggled to eat 800kcals in one go, so in future I’d probably take a mix of freeze dried meals and instant noodles, divided into a couple of smaller 400kcal portions.

The same goes for the rest of my food: protein bars and nuts tasted OK (by the second day I’d lost my appetite anyway), but not great. When fellow competitor Emily shared her crunched up salt and vinegar crisps with me they tasted incredible so I’d definitely pack these in future.

Electrolytes: I’d only ever used these in tablet form (like Nuun), but when I realised I’d need about six tubes to meet the mandatory requirement (too much weight) I took a chance and just packed s-caps. Although I’d tried them out in training, it was under less sweaty conditions so it was hard to know how many I’d need. So I guessed, then added a few more for good measure. I planned to take them roughly every hour, but when my watch broke early on, I did it based on when my fingers started to puff up from water retention (maybe don’t try that at home though).

Training

I was happy overall with my training and, finishing as 2nd lady and 13th overall, must have done something right. But having trained predominantly on city trails (think Richmond Park, the Thames towpath, Wimbledon Common: off-road but not particularly technical), these were nothing compared to the tough terrain in the desert (think, big rocks, gorges, soft sand, rivers.). If I did the race again I’d get out to the wilderness and run on some more technical ground (eg the North Downs Way, Scottish Highlands, or Lake District). As with the big European races like UTMB, it’s no great secret that the runners that excel at these are the ones that live and train in the mountains, so it goes without saying that replicating race conditions as much as possible in training is the way to go.

Race report: The Atacama Crossing

Atacama tent mates

It has taken a while to settle back into the real world after the Atacama Crossing and it’s been even harder to find the words to describe the race.  A year of meticulous planning, several months of training, a week bumming around San Pedro in the name of acclimatisation, and then it’s all over in a flash. I guess it’s not surprising that the post-race blues have probably been the toughest part to deal with.

The sense of detachment in the lead up to the race was there for a reason: so I didn’t have a total meltdown even before getting to the start. The day before, competitors gathered in the race hotel for check-in and pre-race briefings. I shared a room with Tash; we’d met before in San Pedro and really hit it off. We spent the night sharing ultra-running tales and obsessively cutting weight from our packs, shedding excess food and other non-essential items. We both agreed we couldn’t survive for a week in the desert without eyeliner, so added this post-kit check. My bag had weighed in as one of the lightest, 5.75g before water, and I figured an extra ten grammes was worth it.

In the afternoon we were bused to camp 1, Rio Grande, at an altitude of 3,200m. The air instantly felt cooler and much thinner than in San Pedro: would the extra time spent at altitude pay off? Camping conditions were rudimentary and cramped, with ten in a tent. The first of the six sleep-deprived nights felt the coldest and most uncomfortable; even with  a warm sleeping bag and mat, every stone dug in and the temperature dipped to nearly freezing. But I don’t think we were expecting anything five star.

On paper, day one didn’t look too daunting. It was the shortest stage, 22.5 miles, with 700 metres of descent overall. We set off at 8am, the pace seeming frantic. Rolling hills and a few gorges to navigate, the first 10k completely floored me and I felt exhausted and nauseous. There was soft sand and a never-ending plateau pebbled with rocks. I’d trained to run, not walk, and did what I could, but the path was so technical and it was a huge mental effort to scan the ground both ahead and directly under your feet in order to keep up the pace and avoid twisting an ankle. Power-hiking for five kilometres of gradual ascent before the final four kilometres into camp. I tried to stay positive, but in the back of my mind were huge doubts about the week ahead. I questioned my preparation and training: it hadn’t seemed hard enough. I’d thrived off the buzz of casually telling people I was travelling to Chile alone to run a self-supported, 250k race across the desert. I’d enjoyed training and the ultra-distance training runs with a weighted pack.

Day two was the most beautiful and it was impossible not to fall in love with the scenery, despite the course being brutally hard. My race tactics, to cover as much ground as possible before it was too hot, weren’t much use: the first 10k took in multiple river crossings, with water up to waist height. Several kilometres of ascent, some ridge running with spectacular views across San Pedro, then a descent down a massive sand dune. It was an adventure, not a race, and this mantra carried me through the day, albeit not very fast, but I was happy just to finish the 27.9 mile stage. I reasoned that I hadn’t paid a small fortune to suffer and not enjoy the scenery. I wanted to compete, but I didn’t want to spend six days suffering.

Cat River crossing

Stage three was 25 miles and was rumoured to be the hardest. After a five kilometre march across dusty, uneven ground, we came to a flat, straight road and it was a relief to finally have some runable ground. Emily, Ruthann and I, the top three placed women, came out together and we had a brief ‘girl power’ moment. At no point did it feel like we were competing – we all got on so well and I teamed up with both on several tough stages. For the next 20 kilometres, I kept with the lead pack, as I figured this would motivate me to run more as the temperature rose, rather than run-walking. It paid off and I caught Emily, the lead female, as we came to the final checkpoint.With ten tough kilometres to go on difficult terrain, we agreed to stick together and help each other out. We power-hiked across the sand and rocks and scrambled up a massive dune, not saying much but knowing we were stronger as a team than alone. This final stage took an eternity and finished with a sadistically steep climb into camp. We hugged and I felt very emotional about the enormity of what we’d just achieved: joint 1st place and 13th overall. We were about halfway through the race and had just conquered one of the toughest stages. I felt exhausted, but deep down, ready for anything else that was thrown at us.

Stage four. Legs were working on autopilot, I’d lost my appetite and with The Long March looming on day five, people were nervously conserving their energy for the stage that would be double the previous days. But first, there were 27.5 miles over ‘The Infamous Salt Flats’, with a section described as ‘extremely difficult’ in the course handbook. Crunchy, sharp, not the sort of terrain you want to misplace a foot on. On reaching them, we were met by a wall of heat: the white salt flats reflected and amplified the midday sun (which reportedly reached 42C). While approaching the ominous crusty terrain, two Austrian competitors approached at speed from behind, and I made a snap decision to join them. I ran the entire length with them, not looking up, only focussing on the feet in front of me, and before we knew it, the next checkpoint was in sight, then camp five.

The Long March had been looming for five days now. We’d come so far, yet there was still nearly 50 miles left to run in one stage. I wanted to finish in daylight, but had learned over the previous stages that nothing was a given. I teamed up with Ruthann and James, both experienced ultra-runners, and we agreed to stick together. We set off strong with the lead pack, but were split up after about 10 kilometres when Ruthann was struck down by nausea. James and I pushed on; I felt bad for leaving her, but there was still a long way to go. I’d been running without a watch since mine died early on the first day and it wasn’t until over half way that I discovered what good progress we were making. There was another climb up a massive sand dune, but we got our heads down and made light work of it; we were just focussed on reaching the few remaining checkpoints. Our goal of finishing before sunset seemed within reach. James and I maintained a consistent run-walk strategy and we picked up Emily at the last checkpoint for the final nine kilometres into camp, through the Valley of the Moon. We shuffled past the first tourists we’d seen all week and down into the final camp, finishing hand-in-hand, in ten hours 55 minutes, joint sixth overall, Emily and I joint first females.

And then there were tears and more tears.  Elation, exhaustion and the realisation that the race was nearly over. After spending the week in a state of limbo, wishing away the pain on one hand, but wanting to savour the experience at the same time, this was when the achievement really hit home.  The following day would be a rest day, where competitors compared blisters and fantasised about the food we’d eat when we reached civilisation, followed by a short ‘fun’ run, around 10k, into San Pedro on the final day for the awards ceremony in the evening.

So many superhuman feats were witnessed over the course of the week: blind athlete Vladmi and his guide Erin, volunteers who gave up their time to support the race, competitors sacrificing their own race to help out others. As you might expect, life back in the real world looks and feels a bit different after experiencing an event like the Atacama Crossing. And while I’m sad it’s over, I’ve come away with friends, memories and strength that’ll last a lifetime. And one eye on the next adventure, of course.

Atacama top 3 women

Emily (1st), me (2nd), Ruthann (3rd)

Photos: Racing the Planet, Vladmi Virgilio

Atacama Crossing – Acclimatisation

 

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Since arriving in San Pedro four days ago, breathing has got a whole lot easier, which is a relief, as I’ll be doing a lot of this during the Atacama Crossing. The town sits about 2,500m above sea-level, and part of my reason for arriving eight days before the start of the race was to acclimatise to this relatively high altitude.

Two-hundred and fifty thousand metres isn’t so high that it causes severe symptoms like sickness or dizziness, but it’s sufficiently high to make physical exercise hard. On arrival, I felt out of breath just walking up the street outside my hotel (which is on a slight incline) and when I went to bed on the first night, my heart thumping loudly spooked me a bit.

I hired a bike on the first full day in San Pedro and cycled up a big hill to see the views across the town. Two local dogs came joined me from the outskirts of town and ran alongside, not seeming bothered by the heat or elevation. But by the end of the trip I felt exhausted, headachey and blocked up from the scorched desert earth and dust.

The effects of altitude are really hard to describe to anyone that hasn’t experienced them before, but it’d be fair to say that it’s not too dissimilar to exercising with a severe hangover (I imagine – it’s not something I’ve tried). Your mouth feels dry (you lose more water through sweat at high altitude), your heart pounds and your head spins a bit. But I’ve persevered so the experience isn’t a massive shock on race day, and am so glad I have.

Yesterday I ran with a fellow race entrant – we got chatting in town after spotting each other in giveaway items of desert kit (me, front Raidlight bottles; her, Salomon S-Lab shorts). We ran (and hiked a bit) for about ten kilometres, out to Pukara de Quitor, some ancient ruins that sit at about 3,000m above sea level. At the top we could see for miles and miles, across San Pedro and to the volcanic ridge on the border of Chile and Bolivia. It was worth it not only for the views, but also to discover that running felt really comfortable once we got going: it was only the first few minutes where I felt short of breath. On a short three mile run today I managed to hit the pace I’d been training at back at home (between 9-9:30 minute miles, albeit that this time it wasn’t with full rucksack weight), and again, no lungs were coughed up in the process.

It has also been reassuring to find that the peak temperature isn’t as hot as I’d expected. It reaches about 30C by the afternoon, but on most days I’ll hopefully have finished running by then. Nights in the desert are very chilly (about 4-6C) and often windy, so this is more of a concern than the heat, but hopefully I’ll have enough kit to stay warm (despite having packed very light).

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From the many photos I’ve shared so far, it’s probably clear that this is a pretty special part of the world to be ‘racing’ in (and by racing, I mean stumbling around in a desert halfway across the world, trying not to inhale too much dust or get lost). Despite the event only being six days away, I still feel quite detached from what I’m about to take on. Travelling alone, staying with strangers in dorm rooms and drifting around sleepy San Pedro, waiting for the fifth of October to come. This has felt like an adventure in itself and has distracted me nicely from what’s around the corner, and I’m pretty happy about that.

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Atacama Crossing training – tapering

Cat Kent Coastal

Over the past few weeks, the enormity of what I’m about to take on has started to hit home. I did the serious but boring stuff that cost even more money than I’d already spent, like sorting out a medical certificate and insurance. I fiddled around in the kitchen and concocted a high calorie meal replacement shake for breakfasts in the desert, and organised my food for each day into large, ziplock bags, with the contents and calorie content written on the outside.

My training peaked a couple of weeks ago, when I ran 28 miles then an (organised) marathon the following day, both with 6-7kg (close to full race weight) on my back. I hit a decent pace on both days (around 9:30 minute miles), finishing the marathon in 4 hours and seven minutes, feeling strong and grateful my body was coping so well with not only increased mileage, but increased mileage with added weight on my back.

When the Kent Coastal marathon organisers spotted me finishing the race in full desert gear (tight X-bionic kit, rucksack, front water bottles), they called me over for an interview over the tannoy. Having spent the race feeling a bit over-dressed, I was glad for the opportunity to explain that I was training for a 250km multi-stage, self-supported race in the Chilean Desert. They seemed surprised by how heavy the bag was that I’d just run with and I explained about the rice bags. I’d barely noticed the pack on the race, and took this as another good sign that I must be in peak race form.

After the race, I went out and drank beer with my family on Margate’s harbour arm. I rested the following day, returned home to London, then woke up the next day with a slightly sore left ankle. It felt like a really mild sprain, nothing to be overly concerned about, but maybe an excuse to start tapering a bit earlier.

I haven’t run since then, other than a short two mile ‘test’ jog to coach my club’s junior athletics session. My ankle felt fine – no better or worse – but still a bit sore. I want to run and I feel like I could, but don’t want to risk setting my body back, having come so far.

I don’t feel like an injured runner. Maybe I’m in denial slightly, but I feel that being injured is a state of mind, in a sense. I’d be lying if I claimed not to be a little bit daunted by the prospect of what’s ahead of me, given my recent physical worries. But a quick check in today with friend and sports massage therapist Simon Lamb helped to dispel some of mental niggles that have emerged as a consequence of not having run for nearly two weeks. This time next week I’ll be on my way to Chile, and on the 4th October I’ll be taking on a race that I couldn’t be more excited about. And while part of me wants to squeeze in a run before then, another part knows there’s still a lifetime of adventures ahead.

 

Atacama Crossing: Week 3 training – KIT!

Bag and rice

The last week’s training has been fairly uneventful – so no spontaneous bike trips to Box Hill at sunrise or marathons with bags of rice in my pack. I’ve kept ticking over with a few high intensity classes, short back-to-back runs (4-5 miles each way to work, twice a day), and a 15 miler on Monday with four kilogrammes of rice in my bag (about 5.5kg in total, including water and pack weight).  When it rained so hard that my phone got wet and stopped working, I put it inside one of the bags of rice overnight to draw out the moisture, so won at training and resourcefulness.

The reduced training volume has been on purpose – I tend to follow a ‘one week on, one week off’ sort of structure to allow my body time to recover between high mileage weeks (although still clocked 40-something miles). It also meant I could get to grips with the mandatory kit list. I’ve struggled to find much advice online about what competitors take on the Atacama Crossing, so have been reading a lot of Marathon des Sables blogs on desert running gear and food. For this reason, I wanted to post something specifically on kit and what I’ll be running with, in case it helps future entrants. Items marked with a star are on the mandatory kit list. Here goes…

Wearing

*Running shoes: Salomon Speedcross 3 – these initially felt too supportive around the ankles, but I’ve grown quite keen on them.
*Shorts: either Skins (offers more coverage) or lululemon Dart & Dash (have handy side pockets).
*Top: X-Bionic Fennec – great top, quite high around the neck so bag doesn’t chafe.
*Sports bra: lululemon Stuff your Bra – really comfy but supportive.
*Underwear: IF I wear them I’ll take lululemon’s Light as Air, which weigh just 12g (I might take a spare pair for the long stage, which is 47 miles).
*Cap with neck cover – Raidlight Sahara sun hat.
Buff: Inov-8 – part neck-cover, part wiping-sweat-from-eyes.
*Socks (2 pairs are compulsory): something familiar – Balega or Karrimor double layer blister socks.
Gaiters: undecided about these, as there isn’t so much sand on the route that it warrants full-shoe gaiters, so might opt for half-gaiters.

Kit:

*Bag: OMM Adventure Light 20l: The kit list specifies 25-30l but I’m keen to go as light as possible, so have opted for something smaller and am crossing my fingers that everything will fit – may have to play kit tetris. Will definitely be cutting off all the excess straps to save weight.
*Hydration system: 2x Raidlight Olmo 750ml and 1x 1l Platypus SoftBottle to meet the mandatory requirements of being able to carry 2.5l of water at all times.
*35l Waterproof bag: grabbed a Karrimor cheapie in Sports Direct that weighted the same as more expensive ones from specialist stores.
*Sleeping bag: Mountain Hardware Phantom 45
*Headlamp & Back-up light: Petzl TakTikka+ and an eLite
*Red flashing light: cheap one from Tiger
* Knife/multi-tool: plan to take a single razor/scalpel blade to save weight
*Whistle: rucksack comes with one built into bag clips
*Mirror (to attract attention in case of emergency, rather than for checking state of self in morning): laminated piece of tin foil (weights just 1 gramme!).
*Survival bivvy bag: another Karrimor cheapie that was just as light as pricey ones.
*Compass: found a very old one in the back of a draw, probably from Duke of Edinburgh days. Took the silver ring attachment off and saved 3g of weight (now only 8g!).
*Eating utensil: spork from Sports Direct – also removed the metal clip to save weight
*Sunscreen (min 30ml): taking double the minimum requirement of Banana Boat sports sunscreen
*Lip suncreen: taken out of plastic case and put in small ziplock bag to save weight
*Medication: small selection of painkillers taken out of packaging and put in ziplock bag
*Blister kit: small DIY kit with safety pin, alcohol wipes, zinc oxide tape, plasters
*Compression bandage
Sudocreme: small amount decanted into a small ziplock bag
*Safety pins
*Alcohol gel (60ml): begrudge having to take this
*Toilet tissue/wet wipes
Toothbrush and toothpaste: (note it’s not a mandatory item, but I cut my toothbrush in half and found a mini airline toothpaste, so not much additional weight.)
*Long tights: ones I currently own – whichever weigh the least.
*Long-sleeve top: a down jacket fills this requirement and provides warmth – taking an Ayacucho one which was the lightest I could find at 232g
*Waterproof jacket: I invested and bought a decent one, as it’s on the mandatory kit list for most ultras – Salomon Bonatti WP jacket is worth every penny.
*Rain poncho: free one I got from Color Run
*Warm hat: a cheap, lightweight Karrimor one, as it’s something I’ll never wear again
*Gloves: Kalenji ones I already own
*Sunglasses: cheapie TK Maxx (but are decent, polarised ones)
*Nationality and 4 Deserts patches
*Electrolyte/salt tablets: will probably just take salt tablets to save weight (and I imagine flavoured electrolyte tablets taste hideous when warm)
*Food supply – still figuring this out, and will probably follow it up with a stand-alone post.
Ear plugs – weight 2g, totally essential
Sleep mat – undecided whether to take one. Might cut up an old camping or yoga mat so it just covers shoulders and hips.
Camera – given up on GoPro dreams after discovering they only have around two hours battery life, so will probably take an old HTC phone which has an alright camera.

The next steps will be to nail down food and run 30 miles today! Laters.

Atacama Crossing: Week 2-and-a-bit training

Warning: Contains geeky spreadsheet stuff, obsessive kit weighing and tales of cutting toothbrushes in half.

I learn a lot of stuff this week and had a pretty epic week (and a half) training for the Atacama Crossing.

  • I started training with a weighted rucksack. Possibly a bit late, but I’ve been run commuting for a few years and am used to carrying stuff around with me on runs. So I headed to the supermarket and bought six one-kilogramme bags of rice to carry on training runs (as you do), starting with three bags and gradually increasing to six. And the bonus of using rice, over other heavy items (like rocks or bricks, not to mention being kinder on my back), is that I can eat it after I’ve finished training (if I want).
  • On Thursday night, I went to a social hosted by Racing the Planet, who organise the 4 Desert race series (Gobi, Jordan, Atacama and Antarctica). We drank lots of beer and discussed stuff like what food has the highest calorie per gramme ratio (ie how to meet the calorie requirement of 2,00okCal per day, while carrying as little weight as possible. Some food I’ll be taking with me includes:
  1. Go Noodles: 5.7 kCal/g – these are actually more calorie dense than expensive, freeze-dried meals
  2. Peperami: 5 kCal/g –  not something I usually eat, but I imagine they’d taste heavenly when you’re tired/hungry/craving salt/protein
  3. Peparami peanuts (YES!): 5.4kCal/g – I’d love to meet the person that invented these because I think we’d get along very well.
  4. Clif Shot Bloks: 3.3kCal/g – not so high, but I’ll be taking them as my sugar source because I know they work for me on long runs
  5. Cashew nut butter: 6.4kCal/g – very high, I’m tempted to decanting around 30g a day into zip lock bags as a treat.
  • I made a kit spreadsheet to ensure I’m not carrying any more than I need to be, and have managed to get my total pack weight down to around 5.8kg (before water). This will comprise of 500g food per day (mostly high calorie items) and not much more than the mandatory kit. The only luxuries I’ll be taking include ear plugs and sudocreme (will blog a full list of things once I’ve worked everything out).
Atacama kit

Take the metal ring off a compass and cut your toothbrush in half!

  • I also spent an evening weighing various bits of kit and finding ways to make them even lighter, like cutting a toothbrush in half and decanting sudocreme into a small ziplock bag. I even laminated a small square of tin foil to make a mirror (on the mandatory kit list to attract attention in case of emergencies), which I’m quite proud about (full credit goes to friend Matt for suggesting this one).
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Ride to Box Hill

  • I did a bit of light training throughout the week, including CrossFit, some high intensity circuits and a reformer pilates class, topped off by a day cycling 50 miles in Saturday on a trip out to Box Hill. On Sunday, I joined Jon on a marathon near St Albarns, with mostly Hundred Club members. The event was in memory of a member who had recently passed away with cancer, and it was a real privilege to be among such amazing runners. One was completing his 999th marathon and there were others who’d run 500+ marathons, yet you wouldn’t have thought it by being around them. They really are some of the most humble, unassuming and unsung sports people out there.
  • I ran this marathon with 5kg on my back (including pack weight and water). Then I headed out again on Monday to run 20 miles with a similar weight pack. This was hard, hard, hard, but it’s the tough stuff that’ll make me a much stronger runner (both mentally and physically) when I take on 250 kilometres across the desert.
  • Because I wasn’t sure if that was enough, I cycled to Box Hill again on Tuesday with my brother Edward. We met at 5:30 to ensure we were back for 9am, but road closures (due to landslides after the bad weather) meant we had to go a very long way around, were both late and covered 55 miles. Ouch.

If you’ve got any tips for surviving multi-stage endurance training and events then please share them with me!

 

Atacama Crossing training: Week 1

The Atacama Crossing isn’t very far away now. I’d envisaged a solid four month period of training, but with other big events like Race to the Stones and the Thunder Run in the middle of this block, two months of focussed training is looking more realistic.

I recently qualified as a personal trainer and wrote an upper body focussed strength and conditioning programme for ultra runners like me in mind with weakling upper bodies, to help with the task of carrying six-plus kilogrammes worth of kit, fuel and water across a desert for six days. So that’s one less thing to worry about, hopefully. In reality though, I’ve been attending lots of fitness classes with my new job instead – HIIT classes, reformer pilates, spin. Even the activity that I may have once referred to as CrossShit.

And fortunately, when I entered the race at the end of last year, I excitedly impulse-bought most of the gear I needed. My OMM rucksack has been getting a very good run for its money; I’ve used it solidly for over six months and know it’ll be desert worthy (if it hasn’t fallen apart by then from overuse). I’ve resisted camping in the garden to test out the mega-lightweight-but warm sleeping bag I bought myself back at Christmas, instead taking it on its first outing a couple of weeks ago at the Thunder Run. When I found the X-Bionic Fennec top for a bargain online, which other desert-racers have raved about, I snapped it up too.

The cost of these events can really rack up, so as well as being my own PT (I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have yelling at me to do more burpees), I’ve taken to asking others nicely for stuff that I’ll probably never use again. Like the fetching legionnaires hat, a peaked cap with a neck flap to shade the neck and shoulders, that friend Susie Chan lent me. All that leaves now is gaiters, which I’ll have stitched on to my shoes just before the event.

With kit mostly sorted, that just leaves fuelling. After friends reported back from another 4 Deserts events (who also organise Atacama) that many of the lead competitors had opted for instant noodles over expensive freeze-dried meals, I’ve taken it upon myself to sample all the delicious flavours of supernoodles available. With competitors having a minimum daily calorie requirement, I’m yet to work out exactly what I’ll take to make this up, but it seems to be about striking the balance between convenience and food that motivates you sufficiently to run 250k in extreme heat and altitude. (Apparently one competitor carried a six-can pack of coke across the desert with him – while I love coke on ultras, I don’t love it that much.)

Going into the next two months of training, I feel I already have a good endurance base to work from. The plan is to slowly build up the miles, without panicking and taking on too much too quickly. Two weekends of long, back-to-to back runs are scheduled, with my long run distance peaking at 30 miles – any more and I’m worried I’ll sacrifice quality training for extra time on my feet that I just don’t have time for right now.

After all, I’m about to take on the race of a lifetime, and the last thing I want to do it get myself injured. And for the record, I think I quite like CrossFit.

Atacama crossing

Pic from 4 Deserts

Race to the Stones: Thoughts from Race Day

On Saturday, I took on Race to the Stones as part of an all-female race team, RTTS100. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

I loved Race to the Stones: Big, corporate events (Run to the Beat, BUPA 10k) don’t really float my boat (and tend to be badly organised too), so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy a big-brand event with 1,500 entrants. But I really cannot fault the race. The organisation was great, the aid stations were well stocked and there was an inclusive feel to the whole event. It really was designed to make ultra-running accessible to more people, which can only be a good thing in my book. (For disclosure purposes, I paid for my race place.)

It’s great to have a plan, but sometimes it’s good to go with the flow: After going into my last three ultras wanting to finish with the top few females, this event was all about running with the rest of the RTTS100 team and having a laugh, which was exactly what happened.

Having company on races is great: I prefer to run alone, but ran the entire 100k distance with superwoman Susie Chan and had such a blast. We chatted, bared our backsides when we needed the loo on the trail, shared our painkillers when our legs screamed at us, and got our heads down when the going got tough. I’d take her company again over running solo – thanks, Susie!

Put the training miles in: I only did one 20 mile training run, one 25 miler and no long back-to-back runs, and my legs suffered for it. With the Atacama Crossing fast approaching, I need to start making time to training properly again.

Crisps are really tasty on ultras. As is leek and potato soup (salt!), full-fat cola and pizza (Susie actually carried a pizza in her race vest!). When you’re on your feet for over 12 hours, having predominantly real food with a few sugary things like Clif Shot Bloks is essential.

RTTS team

Being part of an amazing, all-female race team is a pretty special thing: Sophie and I started planning the team back last July. Underpinning everything was the desire to inspire more women to run ultras and step up to big, scary challenges, but we were worried that no-one would enter and our sponsors would say no. Fast forward one year, and as I sit, post-race, with very sore legs and nursing a lot of chaffing, I’m glad we stuck at it. Big thanks to Sophie and The North Face for everything.

Surround yourself by amazing people and you’ll become amazing too: The Race to the Stones women were all very different, but shared a lot of the same traits. They were tough, driven and incredibly inspiring people and I feel very privileged to have been part of the team with them. Louise and Kabuki both did amazingly, one of our team, Sorrell, actually won the women’s field, and four of us (Lucja, Susie and me) finished in the top ten. Not too shabby.

You can do anything you put your mind to: I ran my first ultra a year ago and have run five since. Three months ago, when I stood on the start line of the Centurion South Downs Way 50 miler, I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I did. Yesterday, I ran 62 miles/100 kilometres with two women (Maja and Hannah) who had both run marathons before, but have never run an ultra. Stepping up from 42.2km to 100km is such a huge one and I’m incredibly proud of them for their achievements, along with the rest of the team.

RTTS picture

For more pictures and tales from the team, head over to our blog: http://tnfultrateam.tumblr.com/

 

Kit review: The North Face FL Race Vest

In the ultra running world, owning a race vest is something of a rite of passage. They’re a practical, lightweight bit of kit designed to carry all the bits you need for running lots of miles in one go. You can stash a waterproof jacket in the back, water bottles in the front pouches, and the ultra runner essential fiver-and-a-flapjack in the pockets.

Not to mention, they make you look like a superstar, pro-ultra runner that thinks nothing of running 50 miles up a mountain before breakfast. Even if you’ve just stumbled out of your front door and run multiple laps around the well-trodden paths of Richmond Park with a gazillion other Londoners. There might be water fountains and toilets every few hundred metres, but you can load up your race vest and pretend you’re out running in the wilderness, with only a toilet roll and a bag of percy pigs for company.

I’d been jealously eyeing up the race vests of my fellow ultra competitors for quite a while now, so was very pleased when The North Face decided to send me their FL Race Vest as part of my Team Race to the Stones 100 kit. The vest is described by The North Face as ‘the ultimate lightweight endurance running pack’ – exactly what you need when you’ve got a 100km race on the horizon. It features an eight litre rear pocket with lots of internal sections, two zipper pockets and a mesh-design back, which fits, at a squeeze, a full set of work clothes (but is probably a bit small for regular run commuting, which was when I first tried it out).

On the front are two shoulder bottle pockets, which I tested out on a 20 mile run over the weekend with a 250ml water bottle (from my 100-marathon-man husband’s fuelbelt) in one and a squeezy pouch of apple and pear baby food in the other. There are also handy Velcro pockets at the front, useful for stashing extra snacks, an oyster card and phone (if you’re one of those that likes to take selfies on runs then this is good news). I’m also told, by the North Face website, that there are trekking-pole (AKA cheat sticks) attachments, and that the bag weights 325g (I’d probably have weighed it eventually though; kit weighing is my new obsession, pre-Atacama Crossing where every gram counts in a bid to glide effortlessly across the desert with as little stuff as possible).

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The whole point of race vests, so I’m told by other regular users, is that once you strap them on it should feel like you’re not wearing one, and once I’d fiddled around with all the various attachments and cords I found just that. The vest was really comfy and didn’t move around at all or rub my neck, as other bags with narrower straps have done in the past.

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There are a lot of race vests on the market and I haven’t tried out other brands, so can’t really give a definitive view on whether this is in fact the wonder-vest of dreams, but I’m certainly looking forward to putting it through its paces over a summer of training, running lots of miles and living the ultra babe dream.

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Reposted from The North Face Ultra Team blog, here

Race vest available here: http://www.thenorthface.co.uk/tnf-uk-en/flrace-vest-pack/p96306.html

Race report: The London Marathon

I ran the London Marathon last week. My legs weren’t really very happy about that. It was only a week after the South Downs Way 50 miler and they were in unimaginable pain for a couple of days after the race. I couldn’t physically lift them into my standard ‘legs up against the wall’ recovery position. When walking they occasionally buckled underneath me, which made for an interesting few days in Paris when I joined Jon after he ran the marathon, the day following the SDW50.

By Thursday, they were starting to feel better. On Friday, I went along to the tenth anniversary of Nike Free, did a five kilometre jog led by Paula Radcliffe (which I’ll report on separately, as I quizzed her about ultras and had an interesting response), and thought, ‘this marathon thing will be fine’. After heading to the expo in the evening, picking up my stuff and eating all the Clif bar samples, I started to feel very excited about running London again, but this time without heaping lots of pressure on myself and trying to run ridiculously fast.

The goal was to run a sub-four hour marathon. Somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 seemed realistic, considering I’ve run marathons (and more) under tough conditions in the past. Like three 30-ish mile races over three days at The Toad Challenge and a 3:33 marathon two weeks after running 44 miles at The Country to Capital ultra in January. Just saying to put things into context – while running on tired, damaged legs isn’t something I’d advise, the plan was to take London easy, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience.

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After meeting Laura and Cathy at the green zone and a very understated race start, we shuffled along through the masses for the first three miles, before getting split up. I spied Jon and my Dad at mile eight, ducking across the path of runners to stop and say hi (note to self and others doing London in future – ask your supporters what side of the road they’ll be on).

Everything held up pretty well for the first 12 miles, but after that point it all got a bit painful – a loo stop after seeing Liz and her megaphone at 12 miles (the two events weren’t in any way connected) and a painful stitch after that for the rest of the race. The crowds were great, and I tried to smile and thank those that shouted encouragement when I switched from running to walking in parts. But, to be honest, I missed the peaceful tranquility of running out on the South Downs with just myself and the occasional other runner for company. London was a bit claustrophobic in comparison.

There were many, many moments when sub-four hung in the balance, but I genuinely think the prospect of getting to the twenty five mile mark on the Embankment, where my brother was waiting with a beer for me, spurred me on after the 3:45 pacer overtook. Beer makes a lot of things more fun and I’ve known that for a long time, but only recently discovered that it makes the prospect of running a marathon in a lot of pain more bearable.

Photo via my brother, Edward

So there you have it. Another marathon (which I finished in 3:54), another lesson learnt and passed on. A massive well done to all my pals that ran (Laura, Cathy, Kathleen, Melissa, Soph, Lorna x2, Sarah, and many, many more). See you again next year (although I might be cheering this time instead)!