Grand Union Canal Race 2017

Looking rather chuffed with my trophy :)

Looking a bit chuffed with my awesome trophy 🙂

It’s nearly two weeks since GUCR and I’m still processing the experience. It would be fair to say that I completely obsessed over this race for the preceding six months and training took priority over most other things (like my social life). But I don’t believe in doing things by halves and I was just not willing to stand on the start line feeling under-prepared.

There’s a certain amount of folklore around GUCR in ultra-running circles; it’s an absolute classic and I’d heard nothing but positive things about the race and organisers Dick Kearne and Keith Godden. For the uninitiated, it’s Britain’s longest non-stop race, covering 145 miles of historic canals from Gas Street Basin in Birmingham to Paddington Basin/Little Venice in London. I spent months poring over blog posts about the race, so apologies if this is on the long side; it’s partly for the memories of what was an incredibly special event, and partly to pass on knowledge about the race from my corner of the interweb to prospective runners.

I’m not someone with bucketloads of self-belief, but I’m a realist and like to think fairly aware of my ability as a runner; following a 19:08 finish at the SDW100 last June, 17:24 at A100 in October, then two marathons in 3:06 and 3:07 this year in April and May, I definitely felt as capable as I’d ever been of having a good crack at GUCR. I’d studied the entrants list and felt like good competition could come from Wendy Shaw and Izzy Cairns, both runners with really impressive race times.

The week prior the race was a reading week at university and, while I had grand plans to study, I became completely consumed with race logistics. There was a lot to organise; the duration of the race meant I’d had to organise three crews, each for 12 hour shifts (that included post-race duties I didn’t want to overlook, like being driven home 🙂 ), and I was extremely fortunate to have willing friends and family to fulfil these roles. I shopped for food (knowing fully well I wouldn’t eat most of it), met my crew to talk things through, and meticulously filled in the sheet of estimated arrival times at each crew point. It was part guesswork and made me feel a bit sick – the race started to hit home when I was having to commit to writing what time I was hoping to be through CP9 having run 133 miles.

On Friday lunchtime my Dad drove over and we started the journey from London to Birmingham at about 1pm; I’d envisaged arriving in Birmingham in the early afternoon and having time to do a last minute shop and scope out the start line, but in reality, heavy traffic and a stop off for Jon meant we only just made registration at 8pm. I’d hoped to join runners in the pub next door but by the time we’d ferried things from the car, it was bed time.

I set my alarm at 4:40am to maximise sleep, knowing I would be on my feet for so long and that I could probably get away without eating too much for breakfast, providing I was disciplined about eating early on in the race. I also did that thing you’re never meant to do of wearing a new vest, although everything else was tried and tested. I opted for Hokas which seemed like the most sensible footwear choice over the distance.

I was insistent we left the hotel early at 5:35am, despite the fact that we staying practically on the start line; I wanted to soak up the pre-race atmosphere and the minute we turned the corner on to Gas Street I had goose bumps. It was just a load of runners milling around and a van for drop bags, but it was more that fact that it was the culmination of a few years’ of curiosity about the event and six months’ graft.

After a few nervous hellos and a briefing from Dick, we were off at 6am prompt, led by a couple of chancers who were probably still out from the night before.

Spot the non-runners at the front! Pic from GUCR

Start to CP1 (Catherine de Barnes Bridge) 10.7 miles [Plan – 1:42, actual – ~1:44]

The first part of the race was stunning, along the waterways of central Birmingham in the morning light. The weather was billed to be ‘scorchio’ which, having read Debbie MC’s blog from her 2012 experience in torrential rain, I was happy about, despite not loving running in hot weather. Showers were forecast for the morning and the heavens opened just before CP1 on a particularly leafy stretch which sheltered us from the worst of the rain.

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First few miles of the race

I was running in first lady position from the start, which wasn’t really the plan – I’m rubbish with pressure. I was trying to stick to 9 minute miles and my race plan allowed for 9:36min/miles for the first 25 miles, so I was surprised and slightly pissed off to arrive into CP1 a couple of minutes outside my schedule.

My race strategy was for a sub-30 hour finish based on something in between my SDW100 and A100 times – I’d finished the former feeling fresh and latter, well, I was in the bathroom 10 minutes after crossing the line. I predicted a gradual deterioration of pace, and worked out my arrival times at each crew point based on the following. To be fair, they were completely arbitrary and I didn’t really plan on trying to stick to them – secretly I wanted to be ahead of schedule which I knew would make me feel good, mentally. So in a way, the plan was to trick myself into thinking I was doing better than I was by running to a slower schedule, which sounds a bit perverse, but always seems to work for me in races. I guess I’m quite a simple person really.

25 miles – 4 hours (9:36 min/mile ave pace)
50 miles – 8:30 hours (10:12min/mi) – +4:30 hours
75 miles – 13:30 hours (10:48 min/miles) +5 hours
100 miles – 19 hours (11:24 min/miles) +5.5 hours
125 miles – 25 hours (12:00 min/miles) +6 hours
145 miles – 30 hours (12:24 min/miles)

CP1 to CP2 (Hatton Locks) 22.5 miles [Plan – 3:31, actual – ~3:33]

I’d successfully eaten half a bagel (saved from breakfast), a couple of baby foods and Gu choc PB gels by CP2, which was good going, given that I’m rubbish at eating on races. I was slightly over my target time again, but reasoned that the course was probably a bit long or my watch was inaccurate, given it was set to lower GPS accuracy. Steph, Andy and Jon were crewing for the day shift and they switched my bottles and fed me coffee – part of the all-important constant caffeine drip throughout the race. I’d done that thing of foregoing (well, vastly decreased my intake of) caffeine the week before the race which wasn’t as bad as I expected, other than the time I had to drink a matcha latte in a cafe instead of a flat white when I met Nic for pre-race prep.

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Pic – Steph. One of the lovely locks 🙂

CP2 to CP3 (Birdingbury Bridge) 35.9 miles [Plan – 5:48, actual – ~5:40] and CP3 to CP4 (Heart of England) 53.1 miles [Plan – 9:01, actual – 8:35]

I’d recced the Napton Junction to Braunston Tunnel stretch, as it involved a left turn and short section away from the canal, which looked harmless on the map but I knew could be confusing after nearly 50 miles on my feet. Huge thanks to Paul Mason for his advice on this – I’d spotting on Facebook that he was putting in a lot of recces and I was keen to focus on a few key stretches ahead of the race. I know plenty of people who’ve run GUCR without setting a foot on the course and the detailed course maps are really easy to follow so recceing is by no means essential, but I felt happier having checked out a few stretches.

A good stretch of this was over grassy, slightly bumpy terrain and I took a tumble while overtaking another runner. It was a really scenic bit surrounded by hills and fields – I must confess that, completely unfairly, I never really imagined it would be so stunning. The river was full of bank holiday punters – a few asked where we were running to but I didn’t have the chance to clock their reaction when I called out, “London!” I ran with Paul Beechey who was looking incredibly comfortable and was great company; he would go on to finish second and run a superb race.

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CP4 to CP5 (Navigation Bridge) 70.5 miles [Plan – 12:36, actual – 11:35]

I’d given up on trying to eat real food by this stretch. Grapes were OK. Baby food was getting a bit sickly. Choc milk and Mountain Fuel were keeping me moving forwards. My usual mantra of ‘it’s just running and eating’ was starting to fail me a bit, as both things were starting to feel like an effort. I was feeling nauseous and I knew the only way to handle this was to have what I would have once upon a time called a ‘tactical puke’ (usually preceded by a lot of alcohol).  I think I’d read someone else’s GUCR blog about it so it seemed legit. I’d never run 145 miles before so I had no idea what I was doing. I stopped in a quiet spot after CP5 out of sight of my crew or other spectators/runners in case they were worried about me and felt much, much better for it for the next 30 miles or so. I’ll try and spare too much graphic detail, but I basically felt rough for a lot of the rest of the race and was sick about four times, and with hindsight I’m surprised my race went so well considering. Mind over matter, I guess. I’ve also promised myself I won’t dwell on it too much in this race report in case I come back to read it and convince myself I don’t want to do Spartathlon.

CP5 to CP6 (Water Eaton) 84.5 miles [Plan – 15:21, actual – 14:20]

I went through the official halfway point at 72.5 miles in 11:58; my brain goes a bit mushy and I can’t cope with sums while running, but I could just about work out that I was well on schedule for my sub-30 target. There was a crew switchover on this stretch; my Dad and Nic took over from Steph and Andy, and I changed into a tshirt ready for the night, babywipped my face and felt like a new person. I’d borrowed a SPOT tracker from a friend which was attached to the front, right hand side of my race vest with cable ties and was bouncing around and had started to annoy me, so I cut it off and gave it to Jon to carry. He ran with me from 80-95 miles, then when Nic took over from 95-110, I forgot to get it back for the duration of the race, so it did a few stretches in the car and a trip around Tesco for emergency provisions. Oops.

The night shift and a stunning sunset

The night shift and a stunning sunset

CP6 to CP7 (Grand Junction Arms) 99.8 miles [Plan – 18:57 , actual – 17:33]

There was a key nav point at 98 miles at Marsworth Juntion that I’d recced, but still wasn’t 100% sure about. I was finding setting mini-goals to be a really effective way of motivating myself to keep moving forward, such as getting to the next crew point by a certain time (say, five miles in an hour). Nic was really good company and although I wasn’t really feeling that chatty, he was great at gauging how I was feeling. In particular, he encouraged me to wash my hands and face after I was ‘ill’ which helped me feel human again – a bit like that best friend who holds your hair back for you when you’ve drunk too much 🙂

I did some rough maths at around this stage, after clearing the 100 mile point in roughly 17:35, and realising I only had to run 45 miles in under 10 hours to be on for the female course record.

CP7 to CP8 (Springwell) 120.3 miles [Plan – 23:47, actual – ~21:47]

Despite the fact I was struggling to eat, caramel stroopwaffles were going down really well – of course it was Sod’s law that when I bought them, I assumed there was no way I’d get through all ten in the pack, so ate two walking around the shops. I barely touched the rest of my food. The eight left went down really well and were like gold dust; fortunately Nic had a few Gu caramel waffles spare which were similar.

My Dad was keen I had company for the overnight stretches; it would be fair to say that there are some interesting folk living on the canal, but I didn’t encounter anything that felt unsafe – the few drunk people I ran past in the wee hours either completely ignored me or cheered.

CP8 to CP9 (H’borough Tavern) 133 miles [Plan – 27:15, actual – 24:40]

Jon was getting excited by this stage and reporting back to his parents on my progress – he was practically on the phone to them telling them I was on course for the CR, but I still had a long way to go so discouraged him. He ran with me for most of this stretch; he was fantastic and tried to make conversation but I just wasn’t in the mood. It was at this point that I think my Dad was making frantic calls to Susie, who was due to start crewing at about 6am; the plan was for him to drive to near the finish line, have a few hours sleep, as he’d been up for over 24 hours, then run the last six miles in with me. But given that I was two and half hours ahead of schedule, he lost this precious sleep time. Sorry about that, Dad.

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CP9 to finish (Little Venice) 145 miles [Plan – 30:00, actual – 27:26]

It was awesome to see Susie – she was so encouraging and thrilled by my progress. I was broken by this stage but the sun was shining and it was a stunning morning. I gave up on trying to eat for the last three hours or so, knowing I could get by on liquid nutrition for this relatively short distance. Reaching Bulls Bridge junction came as a huge relief – this landmark was the last key nav point and it was just 13.5 miles to the finish line. Six miles before the finish, my Dad took over pacing duties – we’d agreed we’d run the last bit in together.

I had very little left to give at this stage and, knowing I was comfortably under the course record time, we walked the last three miles in to the finish, seeing friends Rhianon and Sarah Saywer (off to intercept Tom, who was also running). They were extremely encouraging, but I was on the verge of tears.

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Six miles to go – completely exhausted – face says it all

Approaching the finish line, I could hear cheering and cowbells (thanks to the Fulham Running Club contingent who had come to support). I wanted to muster up the energy to break into a run, but it turned out to be more of a ridiculous looking hobble.

There were a lot of tears at the finish line, and I must confess I sobbed on Dick’s shoulder as he gave me my medal. I think they were tears of relief, exhaustion and just sheer surprise as the result sank in. I had broken the female course record by 37 minutes and finished third over all. I was also completely blown away by the support at the finish line – thanks everyone that came down. It meant a lot. And the watering can trophy was the icing on the cake.

After sitting down at the finish line I physically couldn’t get up again and had to be carried to Susie’s car by Jon and Nic. Once home, I went to bed (it was about 12pm on Sunday) and didn’t emerge for 24 hours. I was absolutely exhausted. My left hip and ankle were swollen and my feet very blistered – I don’t usually succumb so badly.

Being carried

Being carried

The aftermath of the race has involved resting a lot – I promised myself two weeks off but I must admit I am chomping at the bit to get out for a run in my GUCR tshirt. Obviously it’ll have to be for a parkrun or something else short and ridiculously showy-offy.

Results board - pic by GUCR

Results board – pic by GUCR

I really can’t thank Dick and Keith enough for such a fantastic race. It really did live up to every thing I’d expected. I’ll definitely be back to volunteer or crew a willing victim next year 🙂

Official results here: http://www.gucr.co.uk/template.asp?doc=341

Full GPS track here (minus the last few miles when my watch ran out of battery): https://www.strava.com/activities/1026647066

 

What happened at Trans Gran Canaria

It’s about eight in the morning and I’ve just arrived at checkpoint four in Fontanales. I’ve been running since 11:00pm the previous day, have missed a night’s sleep and have covered a marathon distance in the nine hours since the start. I grab a ham and cheese sandwich and sit by the side of the road for half an hour, contemplating the future of my race.

I am on target to complete the race in 25 to 30 hours; what I’d estimated it’d take. But fatigue has started to set in, my right hip hurts and I’m having minor stomach issues. A small ziplock bag of painkillers in one hand, I ask a marshal what the process is for withdrawing. Then Lucja comes around the corner and into the checkpoint. I tell her I’m not sure I should continue and we agree to take the next stage easy together. I remind myself that, in the final few hours of darkness, I’d promised myself to stick things out until daylight, at least.

I think back to the first 20 kilometres of the race, which had been positive. The first ten kilometres, hiking in procession with hundreds of flickering head torches stretching into the night like a string of fairy lights up the mountain. After over 1,000m of climbing, we reach the first checkpoint, then descend steeply down the mountain on the other side. The trail is rocky and crooked, and I am grateful that the darkness hides the steep, exposed drops below. By 4:00am, the novelty of running at night starts to wane. Checkpoint two and another steep ascent; the lack of sleep starts to kick in and my eyes hurt from focussing on my footing in the dark.

Daylight comes and I’m running through a pine forest with a soft carpet of needles underfoot. I eat regularly: cold pizza, kinder chocolate, bananas. Just hours before I’d turned off my head torch and pulled up by the side of the trail with the onset of an upset stomach, so resolve to eat small amounts as often as I can.

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As Lucja and I make our way out of Fontanales into the Cararian countryside, the path turns from soft trails to hard, rutted concrete. We are some of the very few runners without hiking poles, but this doesn’t really concern us, as neither of us have used them before, so don’t know what we’re missing out on.

My stomach and hip check in with me at regular intervals. My feet feel good and the sun is shrouded in cloud, making the temperature much more bearable than it could be. We are moving slowly, but considering the steep gradient of the hills we’re climbing, this is to be expected. I try to mask my tiredness with strong, sugary coffee from the aid stations and return to my mantra at increasingly regular intervals towards the latter stage of my race. It’s an adventure. I’m out in the wild, doing something I love. But another voice in my head reasons that an adventure is not a 30 hour death march, nor is it something that should jeopardise your chances of being able to run for the rest of the year.

We make a steep, rocky descent into checkpoint eight at Tejeda, alongside someone else who is wondering if they should continue on. Lucja is strong and I tell her to go ahead. I am devastated not to be able to run the last 60+ kilometres, but another twelve hours of pain is not my idea of an adventure either.

I think every runner that drops out of a race questions their decision to do so, and wonders if they could and should have dug a bit deeper. In fact, I doubt most of us would make it to the start line of extreme events like Trans Gran Canaria if we weren’t the sort of people always striving to walk the line between our every day lives and one where our emotional and physical selves are pushed to the limit. In the next few hours after dropping I am very sick and I realise I’ve come a bit to close to the barrier that normally stops me from getting injured, from being logical, for seeing things for what they really are. My time spent in the medical tent in Garañón, next to someone who has clearly become very disillusioned about his limitations and what his body is capable of, makes me even more aware of this. He hasn’t eaten for 12 hours, is vomiting and is sure he wants to continue, but somehow the medical staff convince him otherwise.

I spent a lot of time during the painful few hours before my DNF, and during my time in the medical tent afterwards, contemplating the future of my running, and questioning whether I could complete the 100 mile race planned in August. But after a good night’s sleep, I resolve to channel the lessons learned from Trans Gran Canaria into facing my next challenge head on. It might take a while for my body to heal, but when it does I’ll be stronger and better prepared for it.

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Moving on from the Atacama Crossing

Atacama aftermath post

It’s nearly a week after the Atacama Crossing and I still can’t find the words to tell my loved ones about the time I spent in the desert. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve drunk too much wine. I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I’m travelling around Chile for two weeks, before returning home to a dream job and people whose love and support is unconditional.

There’s a marathon in Los Angeles, 12 hours south of Santiago by bus, a week after Atacama. Jon’s running and I want to join him. My head says, rest up, but with two weeks of altitude training in my lungs, I can’t resist the chance to race a flat, easy course. A novelty foreigner, I run hard, thinking only of the prize money at stake, and finish proud in three hours and 23 minutes. Third lady, with just over £200 in my pocket. I don’t regret anything.

I’m familiar with the post-race blues. I’ve written about them before. But this time the fug takes longer to lift. Three weeks on and I’m still not sure it has. I’m reticent to jump straight in and enter new races. The ultra-marathon roller coaster isn’t easy to get off once you’re on it: I’m in love with the experiences, the freedom. The people I meet and the solitude at the same time. Maybe slightly addicted too.

I put a lot of asks on my body while training for Atacama, and during the race itself too. Part of the reason I don’t want to set new race goals just yet is because I still want to soak up the experience of the desert. I also don’t like to take my body for granted. The miles stay in my legs for longer than I think. Although they feel well rested now, a few short runs and my hip flexors are tight and sore, so it’s back to stretching. Cycling to get places rather than running there.

Yoga helps me to check back in with my mind and undo some of the miles I ran in the desert. ‘After Atacama’: I said this a lot in the lead-up to the race. I’ll catch up with friends after Atacama. There’ll be time to get this-and-that-in-my-life back on track after Atacama. Now it’s after Atacama and I’m still not quite in the right frame of mind to be getting on with all these things just yet. But, like my body, my mind is still healing as well. And hell, if I want to lie in rather than doing a park run, or watch repeat episodes of Breaking Bad all afternoon, then I will. No drama.

Mind over matter: I guess it’s no big secret that a race like Atacama is the ultimate test of this. And when highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the matter is much tougher than before, I probably shouldn’t be alarmed that it takes my mind longer to bounce back.

I learned a lot during Atacama, like the importance of running my own race, rather than someone else’s. I went in without any new races on the horizon, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after completing such a big goal. I considered dabbling in triathlon or racing shorter events, but now that it’s over, I’m still just as much in love with running long distances as I was before. So in 2015, there will be 125 kilometres at Trans Gran Canaria and my first 100 miler. I think my mind is ready to do it again, and hopefully my legs will follow.

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 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

Team RTTS100 x The North Face take on Race to the Stones!

I blogged a while back about an exciting ultra project I was involved in with Soph at Pretty Fit and global mega brand The North Face.  Fast forward a month or so and the team has been selected. A colourful but slightly scary looking training plan has been put together with running coach Karen Weir. We’ve got a blog and are on twitter, and the very exciting journey to Race to the Stones in July has begun!
Here’s a bit more information about our team members, who will be regularly blogging about training and stuff, and giving an insight into what it’s like to train for a 100 kilometre race. It’s the furthest I’ll have ever run in a single stage event too, so I really am thrilled to be involved in something that will hopefully open up ultra running and other endurance sports to more women, and show they’re more accessible, less scary and a lot of actual fun!
Susie Chan
Susie
My name is Susie Chan, and I am an endurance runner. I have been running since 2011, when I got talked into a half marathon by my brother. I had never run before, did modest training, and managed to stumble over the finish line in quite considerable pain. Since that first medal went round my neck I have been running more and more and further and further. I run because I love it, and I love the people – they are my sort of people, and because I like eating crisps.
My race CV highlight is the Marathon des Sables, and 2014 sees me tackling Boston Marathon and Thames Path 100.
My favorite races are Multistage races, spending days with like minded people, doing the thing I love.
I have never attempted a 100K before or raced as part of a team, so I am very much looking forward to doing both!
You can find me warbling on about all of this and more on twitter @starterfour10

Kabuki Snyder 

Kabuki

Born in Ghana, Kabuki has travelled around the world since the age of 16 for her education, work, and recreation.

To keep healthy and tame her monkey mind, Kabuki actively took to running in 2008.

During this journey, she was inspired by a friend’s courage to run (and complete) the 4deserts and this provided the motivation to sign-up for two ultra’s in 2013: the London to Brighton 100km and The Thames Path 50km. Training and competing helped her to discover peace and mental space that was vital to keeping life balance in check and the distance forced a welcome focus on how to respect the body.

Kabuki’s dream now is to extend her running to ultra distance challenges around the world and to fully embrace the tranquility that she’s found in endurance activities.

Outside of running and walking their dog, Kabuki loves cooking, photography and experiencing the creativity of chefs around the world. Her holidays are spent travelling with her husband Ken to destinations for runs coupled with some food- based exploration.

Professionally, Kabuki works for Universal Music Group International where she is a Senior Vice President responsible for digital distribution of UMG owned and distributed content for all territories outside of North America and Mexico.

You can follow Kabuki on twitter @kabukisnyder

Lucja

With a fairly new found love of ultra running, or just running for that matter, I have also found a confidence and competitive streak that I didn’t know existed previously.

I’ve been running for about 6 years taking it up originally as part of a weight loss plan and now addicted to the endorphins & awesome experiences I get through running.  I built up from 10km to my first marathon in Amsterdam in 2010, and I could never have imagined that I would ever call myself an ultra runner, I hadn’t even heard of it! Now with a couple of ultras in the bag and with a highlight of coming 2nd lady (and 16th overall) in South Africa’s Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (250km self sufficient race over 6 stages) in 2013, I’m off to compete in the 29th Marathon Des Sables. It doesn’t stop there, with my 2014 plans including Edinburgh marathon in May, my first non-stop 100 mile race over in Ohio in June; Mohican 100, Race to the Stones 100km in July, Clyde Stride 40 mile in September and perhaps a return to the Kalahari desert in November.
I’m so excited to be selected to be part of the North Face ultra team with a group of fantastic & inspiring ladies, some of whom I’ve already had the pleasure of getting to know through the power of twitter, and even run with already.  It will be great to learn from the awe inspiring Lizzy Hawker and share training plans and stories with the gang, all supported by the great North Face brand.
Read more about me & my stories at my blog www.runningdutchie.wordpress.com and follow me on twitter @runningdutchie.

Hannah

Hannah is a 23 year-old self-professed mathematician and former Newcastle University graduate, who is now lucky enough to call London her home.

Prior to University, she spent 5 years with the Air Training Corps where weekends were spent roaming the Scottish Highlands and developing a love for the outdoors. Whilst studying she started rowing, practiced yoga and trained with the AXC Club whilst dipping in and out of running. Since summiting Kilimanjaro her most recent challenges include Tough Mudder and completing her first half marathon.

When not on board the Buying Team to the UK’s largest Specialist Running Retailer, Hannah will mostly be found in the kitchen. A creative and aspiring foodie, she is incredibly passionate about holistic wellbeing and a firm believer that the first step in fuelling the strongest most healthy body and mind is eating organic wholesome foods.

You can follow Hannah over at @iamhannahwalsh

 

Louise

Name: Louise Ayling
City: London
Occupation: Teacher

Years running: 4
Years running ultras: 1
PBs: Marathon 4:24, parkrun 24:56

Favourite running surface: Woodland trail.
Running achievement I am most proud of: Earning my parkrun 50 club t-shirt within 12 months of running my first parkrun.
Typical training week: 5 running days, 2 rest days, 40 miles.
Injury history: Stress fracture of foot due to gross stupidity.

Favourite running food: Jaffa Cakes
Favourite running drink: Water
Things I like most about running: The people
Things I hate most about running: The chafing
What got me started running: I thought it would an activity I could fit in during my commute.
What kept me running: My parkrun addiction.
What made me want to do ultras: I wanted to get to the point where it was “only a marathon”.
Go hard or go home: Go home.

Sorrell

My name is Sorrell, and I’m a 23 year old Mancunian living in London. I co-lead the Manchester based running crew Still Waters Run Deep, love a good pint, cake, and running running running.

After being inspired by my brother for completing the London Marathon, and wanting to lose some lingering mince pie pounds, I started running regularly in 2010. I signed up to a 20 mile race the following year, and haven’t thought about stopping since. From my first marathon in 2013, to joining the Run Dem Crew Elites in summer, I found myself running my first ultra-marathon in January, and loved every minute of it.

I’m continually inspired by running as a route of progression. People might think it’s a bit mental when you choose to run so much, or so often, but for me it’s a way to gain balance. It’s a way to focus, and it’s a way to set yourself goals that then thread into other areas of your life, and the more people that feel this, the better.

Race to the Stones will be my longest distance yet, and I’m proud to say that I’ll be part of a team of 10 strong women.  #Elevatewomensrunning

You can follow Sorrell on twitter @sorrellve

 

 

 

Maja

I used to play basketball. A lot. I hated running anything longer than the length of the court and preferred short sprints over anything else. I’m not sure how that led me to long distance running – but here I am.

Since struggling to run a 10km race in 2008 (I had to stop 3 times to get through), I have gone on to find a capacity reaching far beyond what I ever thought possible. It’s safe to say that running is more than just exercise, it’s a way to let my mind breathe and recover and find energy for the other things in my life. I love the peace that sets in when body and mind get into sync and movement was never more natural.

Over the last 6 years I have run longer distances, smashed PBs and found a joy in sharing runs with close friends and complete strangers. But I have never run farther than a marathon, and my only longer distance foray was a crazy plan to walk from London to Brighton in a day without training for it. We made it to 65km or so and returned some weeks later to complete, teaching me a fair bit on the respect-the-distance front.

And now I’ve only gone and signed up for a 100km race.

I love finding space and calm by getting out into nature and nothing beats exerting myself in the fresh air of woods, meadows and seasides. I’m looking forward to what I might find on the journey towards RTTS and on the day itself…

Come run with me on www.runurb.tumblr.com and talk to me on twitter: @runurb.

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Cat

Hi I’m Cat, and I’m a seasoned runner with a penchant for overseas race trips. I’ve run races in many cities around the world (including Marrakech, Istanbul and Berlin), getting the bug four years ago after joining my husband (who has run 97 marathons) on one of his many foreign races, and have completed 14 marathons and four ultras to date.

I recently got into trail ultras after running The Toad Challenge last year, a three day, 90 mile race along the Thames path. Since then, I’ve completed a couple of longer, single stage events, and most recently ran the Centurion South Downs Way 50 miler, up and down the hills on the south coast. Running lets me take stock of everyday life, spend time outdoors in beautiful places, and hang out with amazing, inspiring people that do epic shit like run across deserts and up mountains.

I’m gradually working my way through my race bucket list and will be doing the 4 Deserts Atacama Crossing in October, and hopefully one of the UTMB races next year (probably the CCC). I’m so excited to be part of this team of ridiculously talented runners taking on Race to the Stones and cannot wait for July!

 

Karen

Karen trained for and ran her first marathon in 2003. She then swore never to run again! However a seed had been sown and gradually running became a habit she couldn’t kick. Over the next 11 years the habit turned into an obsession and she began taking on ever more challenging endurance events including the Comrades ultra-marathon and the Jurassic Coast Challenge multi-stage event. Six years ago she incorporated swimming and cycling into her training and completed the Arch to Arc Enduro Challenge as part of a 6 man relay team and became an Ironman (twice!)

Karen’s own personal experiences from running and participating in endurance challenges were life changing and when she was made redundant from a city job in 2008, her passion for running and helping others achieve their own endurance goals led her to set up Run with Karen, a running coaching and consultancy business with the sole purpose of bringing running to as many people as possible. (www.runwithkaren.com)

Karen has coached over 75 athletes, including some famous faces; many of whom were new to running and helped them go on to achieve their goals and experience their own life changing events. She is also a volunteer Event Director for the massively popular parkrun, having started the Richmond parkrun in 2007. Karen is also a parkrun pioneer as she was one of the 13 runners that ran the very first parkrun back in October 2004. Karen is really looking forward to the challenge of Race to the Stones, 100km non-stop will be a whole new experience and sharing it with a fabulous group of ladies will make it even more memorable and rewarding.

Soph

Hello, my name is Soph. I am 24 years old and I love running. I also love marshmallows and coffee. I live in London and by day (and night, and sometimes weekends) I work as a lawyer.

My relationship with running started a few years back while I was studying at university. I was suffering with an eating disorder and started running as a way to burn up the minimal calories I was eating and whittle myself away. Somewhere along the line my love for running overtook the hatred I had for my body; I wanted to run further and faster and knew I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t get better. Running taught me to love and respect my body and I have been hooked ever since. I have now completed three marathons and 10 half marathons and don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

I am so excited about the RTTS100 project and am particularly thrilled to have the support of endurance running experts The North Face, and to be running with a group of such amazing women. This will be my first ultra and I couldn’t ask for better support to take on such an amazing challenge.

You can follow me on twitter @BePrettyFit and over on my blog, beprettyfit.com.

The North Face ultra team – join us!!

Today I’ve got some really big news to announce. Since getting into ultra running in the last year, it’s been such a blast that I really wanted to share the love. So me and my pal Sophie, over at Pretty Fit, have teamed up with mega-brand The North Face and are putting together a race team to run an ultra marathon. Weeeeee!

In July, we’ll be taking on Race to the Stones, an epic 100 kilometre race that follows the iconic Ridgeway route, and are looking for eight female runners to join us on this amazing adventure.

You’ll be kitted out by the North Face and receive training tips from the one and only Lizzy Hawker. We’ll train together (mostly virtually, with a couple of real-life meet ups before the big day), blog together and you’ll get all the support, high fives and cake you need to take on this heroic feat of endurance. You’ll also have a training plan to follow from a running coach and get fuel and nutrition support.

You’re probably thinking, ‘what an amazing opportunity, how do I apply to be part of this?’ We know, we know, we’ve been planning it for months and are super-excited to be finally announcing it. To apply to be part of our race team, please drop an email to TNFultrateam@gmail.com,with the following details:

Your name
Your blog (if applicable)
Your twitter handle
Distance running experience
A little bit about you and why you’d like to be part of the team (200 words max)

The deadline for entries is 23 February 2014

Cat and Soph x

The small print stuff: We will be running the 100k non-stop course over one day. Entrants will be expected to pay for their own race entry (£99) as well as travel and accommodation. You don’t have to have a blog to enter, but you will be required contribute to the project on social media.

Race Report: Country to Capital ultra

Entering an ultra race a couple of weeks after over-indulging during the festive period is a great idea, right? I’m sure there were others questioning their decision to sign up for a 43-ish mile race as we gathered in a pub car park in Wendover, ready to tackle what was expected to be a very muddy course.

And it was. I spent most of the journey to the start trying to make an informed decision about footwear. The 7:12am country to capital express from Marylebone station was packed out with runners and smelt of deep heat, and after several changes between road and trail shoes, I opted for what I thought would be comfiest – road shoes. Plus, with so much mud anticipated, trail shoes would probably still be slippy and not best suited for the second half of the race along a canal path.

I had some vague race goals, mainly don’t face-plant in the mud or fall in the canal, but also:

A goal – run roughly 9 minute miles and finish in about 6 hours 30 minutes (after a 35 mile training run in 8:40 min/miles this didn’t seem wildly optimistic)

B goal – finish before it gets dark in around 7 hours 30 minutes

C goal – finish in time to have a quick shower in Paddington station, next door to the race finish, before heading over to a comedy night in Camden at 7:30pm – 8-plus hours

The race can be split quite nicely into two parts. The first half was hilly, across fields and trails through the Buckinghamshire countryside. There was a lot of sliding around in the mud, running through waterlogged fields and a couple of flooded roads. This served the purpose of washing the mud off my trainers, ready for the second half of the race along the Grand Union canal into London. Very nice.

Photo credit: Dad

I didn’t get lost on the first half of the race, which wasn’t due to any skills on my part, but by just happening to follow people that knew where they were going. I’m pretty sure I could have navigated if I wanted to though. Honest. The hills made it hard to maintain a steady pace and some really muddy stretches meant putting in double the effort. But overall, walking up them probably helped save my legs for the second half, which was  along a flat, straight canal path. It was impossible to get lost on this, although slidey in parts and I nearly fell in a couple of times.  When I tired towards the end, I wondered if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as I’d have a valid excuse to DNF, which seems a little extreme now.

It was easier to get into a rhythm and zone out for this part of the race. At the 35 mile point, when the runner ahead of me took a phone call (as you do while you’re running an ultra) and told the person on the other end that he’d be another hour and a half, a part of me died inside: I was feeling tired and was in denial about how far was left.

But fortunately, it didn’t take that much longer. There were a couple of killer bridges just before the end, which I walked over. My Garmin decided its laps database was full and wouldn’t show me the time for the last few miles. So it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line, when someone handed me a piece of paper with my time and position on it, that I realised I’d finished in 6 hours 56 minutes, in seventh female position (that was after getting a bear hug from my sports masseuse extraordinaire Simon Lamb and nearly breaking down in tears out of relief that I’d made it).

And what a long, fun, slightly painful journey it was. It was great to finally meet internet buds like Paul, not to mention other familiar faces on the ultra circuit. With the longest stretch of the Atacama Crossing being a similar distance, it was also good to get a feel for this. And while it felt pretty effing painful, if it was easy then the beer waiting at the end wouldn’t have tasted quite so good.