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Ultra trail

Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc - CCC recce

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Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc - CCC recce

Back in January this year I found out that I was successful in securing a place in arguably the most prestigious trail running race series on the planet - Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Throughout the last week in August, members of the trail running community worldwide descend upon Chamonix for a week of races of various distance and elevation. All of them require participants to qualify by earning points at designated races. The UTMB race series is considered the Mecca of trail running and the top of its game in terms of the experience, fitness and skill required to attempt it, let alone complete the course.

The race I entered via the ballot is called the CCC.. each ‘C’ is representative of the three main towns in the three different countries the route goes through; starting in Courmayeur, Italy then passing through Champex, Switzerland before finishing in Chamonix, France. The course totals a little over 62 miles, 6100m of elevation and five mountain summits - participants are given 26.5 hours to complete it.

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After the initial giddiness of excitement, nerves and genuine fear, I devised a plan which involved a coach and regular physio appointments as I’d been carrying a hip injury for a while. Self care in general is something I fall down so I knew I had to step this up with immediate effect. Training would involve as many hills as I could find (not easy when we live in a flat-ish country!) and a whole lot of stair climbing at the gym.

The day that the ballot results were released I decided that a recce weekend in Chamonix was a given. So the weekend just gone I flew out there with a friend, Jonathan Zincke, who has aspirations to complete CCC himself next year but also happened to be training for his own mountain race in a couple of weeks. He was definitely the right person!

I have to admit that beyond the initial discussion to agree a weekend we were both available, I left it up to Jon to manage and plan logistics - this isn’t my strong point and he seemed quite happy to plot routes, book transport etc..

The Warm Up Run

We arrived in Chamonix on Friday lunchtime and after a bit of a chill (we were up since 2:30am to catch our flight!) we headed out to explore the local trails heading up to the Merlet Animal Parque - a 7 mile loop with a 670m climb. It was a beautiful evening and I enjoyed the vertical challenge. The trails were all single track and very easy to follow. A few technicals here and there which added to the thrill of it all. A great leg loosener ahead of Saturday’s long run.

The Long Run

I was a little apprehensive about this one and now that I’d experienced what a mountain mile actually looked and felt like, my apprehension had grown overnight. The route was mostly the first 36km of the actual CCC route itself and I knew that the first climb was around 8 miles long and 1400m up. We caught the 8:30am bus from Chamonix, through the Mont Blanc tunnel, to Courmayeur in Italy where the race starts.

The climb to the top of Tête de la tronche is around 1400m and once you clear the tree line the air becomes a little thinner so breathing was laboured and both Jon and I found ourselves having to stop more regularly. It’s also quite exposed up there and just a gentle gust of wind made me shiver.

The ascent was a real eye opener for me and whilst my fitness and endurance is pretty good at the moment, it didn’t take me long to realise that I need to get some hiking practice into my training.

The descent, on the other hand, I was pleased with. Apart from the obvious that down hill running carries less cardio loading, I handed the technicals fairly well and without compromising my pace too much.

Furthermore, I’d heard people say that the downhills are so steep that it’s quite common for the quad (thigh) muscles to ‘blow up’ (not literally, I hope). Whilst I could feel them having to work hard, I had good control and stability and other than a bit of heaviness the next day, I felt good!

Jon and myself both underestimated just how long the original plan of 36km/23 miles would take us, and with the last bus back to Chamonix to catch, we made a decision to skip the second ascent. It was the right thing to do at the time but when the bus was two hours late, we were more than a little bit miffed that we could have stuck to the plan after all. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Still, we managed 22 miles, 1750m total ascent and 8 hours on our feet. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we celebrated with several drinks and ice cream whilst waiting for the bus.

The Morning After Run

After a restless night of fast breathing and raging thirst which I later realised was the onset of altitude sickness, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling hardly any achiness or stiffness in my legs. Due to missing out on the second mountain the day before I was keen to get back out for a bit more elevation training before flying back to England. Jon was happy to give it a miss so instead he took the cable car up to Plan Praz whilst I ran/hiked the footpath up to the same point. I knew we didn’t have enough time for me to make it all the way to the top but I was happy to gain another 600m of elevation under my belt. It was a strong and satisfying finish to an extremely tough weekend of training.

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The Countdown

So with 8 weeks to go I have my work cut out. My endurance is in a strong place for the distance but my strength endurance for elevation still needs some work. So my plan is to spend even more time on the stair climber, increase muscle strength endurance and get some hiking practice in.

I’ve also felt the effects of altitude sickness upon my return, not a great feeling but I’ll have more time to acclimatise during the week leading up to the big day on 30th August.

To recce that first mountain and get used to the changing terrain as well as get some technical down hill practice is as much as I wanted from the weekend. However I’ve come away with so much more; a new friend, new mountain trail experience and the utmost respect for the mountains themselves and anyone who even considers running in them!

Whilst I’m more apprehensive than ever, I know what I need to do now and that in itself gives me much better clarity. I’m excited and nervous but can’t wait to get back and run amongst those majestic giants that are Les Alps.

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Reflecting on 2018, The Year of Self Discovery.

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Reflecting on 2018, The Year of Self Discovery.

It’s that time of year again when many of us reflect upon the last 12 months and consider the high and lows, what we’ve achieved and perhaps start to think about setting new goals as we head into a new year. 

Personally I’m not a fan of the ‘new year, new me’ attitude. Whilst I understand that it’s a good time to start fresh, I also wonder what stops people from wanting to better themselves at any given point in time. Perhaps in a world full of diet pills, starvation diets, cleanses, skinny coffees, celebrity exercise dvd’s and transformation programmes, conflicting advice can leave us feeling confused and torn in different directions.

For me, it’s about simplicity and choosing just one or two things to focus on otherwise I start to feel swamped. In previous years I’ve been that person trying to do too many things and not really excelling at one thing in particular and therefore I’ve never really given myself a chance to figure out what I could be great at.

So this year I had two main goals:

1. Complete 100 miles

2. Get faster over longer distances.

If I had to throw in a third, it was to achieve the first 2 without any serious injury which is easier said than done when I was already carrying existing aches and pains from 2017. I’m happy to say that I’ve just about survived the year with only a few physio appointments, an X-ray and mri scan on my foot... that’s a good year for me. 

I’m not going to list everything I’ve done this year (my Instagram does a good job of that) but only to say that I achieved what I set out to do. My ‘A’ races were the 100 miler (race report here), Centurion Chiltern Wonderland 50 (race report here) and Abingdon marathon (I’m yet to blog about this but it’s in my plan).

How did I do it? I asked myself how badly I wanted it. The answer to this wasn’t immediately apparent but as I progressed with my 100 mile training I started to realise that my mental strength and desire to be great was growing week by week. I developed a real hunger to see what I could do and this in itself drove me to keep pushing. Previously, if I had a last minute cancellation  from a client then I’d use the time to pitch up in a cafe and do some admin work, but instead I started to use the extra time to throw in shorter runs here and there. I found that the quick blasts became just as significant to my training as the longer steady paced runs.

Outside of my longer training runs, I noticed I was getting much faster and starting to PB again after a long dry period of slow progress. Aside from the fact I had increased my weekly mileage, I had also started the year off with heart rate zone training which had now taken full effect. By year end I went onto PB in 5km (20.47), 10km (42.15) half marathon (1.38), marathon (3.29) and 50 mile (9.53) distances.  

I also had a secret weapon in my training partner, Caroline, who was also doing the West Country Ultra. That woman has a drive and tenacity akin to a big African cat with its eye on its prey. it’s quite a sight to behold! So running with her has always given me that extra push and whilst I quite often hate it, I’m always grateful to her once I’ve had a glass of coconut water and packet of ready salted crisps, my go to post run snack, and caught my breath again. I probably don’t give Caroline enough credit for the real effect she has on my training, so if you’re reading this Caroline, a massive thank you for being every bit as crazy as I am and more! 

I’m not doing a great job of summarising my year in this post but I guess what I’m trying to say, albeit somewhat cliché, is that as long as you have just one tiny cell of self belief then it will multiply and grow, the more you nurture it. 

Completing the West Country 100 mile ultra marathon is most certainly one of my biggest running accomplishments to date, but the journey leading to it and the road that followed on from it continues to build my confidence and ability to achieve more than I ever dreamt possible. 

So here’s the thing, when you set your goals I beg you please don’t make it just about the faddy diet, cleanse or 30 day shred but ask yourself how much do you want it and more to the point, think beyond the intial programme and make a longer term plan that’s realistic and sustainable around your lifestyle.

Furthermore, look closer to home, look inside yourself and DO believe, DO dream big and DO reach beyond impossible... you might just discover something quite remarkable. 

My goals going into 2019 are to build on my new found self belief (I still have a long way to go) and make sure I always remain firmly outside of my comfort zone. I also have bigger, more important goals, and they are to find a better balance with my family life, be a better mummy and focus more on my clients requirements. 

I’ve just recently joined the Salomon Ambassador family so I’m looking forward to establishing myself within the role which involves delivering workshops and hosting trail runs as well as showcasing what the Salomon trail running community has to offer.

I’ve also made the huge leap outside of my comfort zone and I’m committing to sharing my story with the hope to inspire others through public speaking.. my first two engagements are in January and yes I’m terrified but also looking forward to something new.

Finally, I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone in my support network who have been a part of my running and fitness journey. My incredible family for putting up with my silly antics, my clients and friends for always listening to the aftermath, my incredible RUN LIKE A GIRL members who inspire me to be the best leader I can be and also to those friends who I’ve made along the way - the ultra running community really is something quite special and I can’t wait to see what further adventures 2019 has in store for me. 

2018.. over and out.  

 

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Polka Dot video production

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Polka Dot video production

Back in March ‘18 I had the opportunity to be part of a short film produced by Worcester videographers Polka Dot Production .

Jo and Duncan Cox are a husband and wife team who direct and produce some of, if not THE finest wedding videography I’ve seen - seriously check out their work, it’ll make you want to get married just so that you can have them make a film about it. 

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Fortunately for those who are already married or those who just don’t fancy it, Jo and Duncan also make promotional videos and this is where I came into it. Polka Dot Production wanted to expand their portfolio by adding a short film to their arsenal of high end video production and they had very clear ideas about how they wanted to do that. 

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So in short, I spent a few hours running around the South Warwickshire countryside while Jo and Duncan filmed me both from the ground and using a high spec drone. I’ll let the film do the rest of the talking but let me just wrap this up by saying that these guys were a pleasure to work with. They were professional, creative and made me feel very relaxed. 

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West Country 100 mile ultra marathon

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West Country 100 mile ultra marathon

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After completing Rat Race The Wall 69 miler in June 2017, it seemed that the obvious progression was to set a new target of 100 miles. After completing a couple more ultras that year, I felt ready to take my training to the next level. In addition to this I’d ran Race to the Stones 100km with my good friend Caroline, it was her first taste of ultra running and luckily she’d been bitten by the bug, so it was decided that we’d run 100 Miles together in 2018. 

Fast Forward to May 19th this year and with five months of tough training under my belt, Caroline and I found ourselves at the starting area of the West Country Ultra, along with just 20 other athletes, four women in total. This event organised by Albion Running, is still relatively new to the ultra scene but with 11000 feet of elevation, it’s fast becoming reputed as the toughest 100 mile race in the UK. Entrants have an option of the Flat 50, Hilly 50 or the full 100. 

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After a countdown by the Race Director we were off and soon found ourselves settling into a nice comfortable pace alongside the canal. The first few miles passed quickly and we were soon at CP1 which was well stocked with snacky type foods, but no toilet, bush squat it was then. 

The next section was a 10 mile stretch along the river where the grass had grown quite high, so by time we’d reached CP2 my legs were already starting to feel tired.. not a great feeling with 79 Miles still to go! They did eventually ease off with regular stretching and I started to feel strong again. CP3 came and went and we were now approaching the coastline so the scenery was really starting to pick up.

At this point it had become quite apparent that the check points, although supported by some really friendly volunteers, had quite a limited range of food - lunch time had been and gone and I was yet to see anything other than crisps, nuts or a peanut butter wrap.. no proper toilets either so squatting had become quite the norm - not a problem for the time being but with 24 hours of running ahead of us, I couldn’t help but wonder how this would work later on. 

The next stretch was a beautiful coastal path with some lovely undulations. I knew that my husband and two children were going to be at the next checkpoint which gave me a huge lift. I was starting to feel the early signs of an ongoing issue I have in my left foot where one of the tendons over stretches which can become quite uncomfortable after a few miles. I was concerned but knew there wasn’t too much I could do other than tape it at the next checkpoint and hope for the best.

To pass the time, Caroline and I played games like trying to name all of the American states in alphabetical order (I’m yet to check if we missed any of them) and even got Instagram involved in naming animals which begin with Q and U (Quagga, Uakari). CP4 at Kilve Beach was a warm welcome and much needed hugs from my family... the support crew had arrived, including Helen who was going to pace us from 70 miles - spirits were high and both Caroline and myself felt strong. 

My husband Richard, Helen our pacer, Lina plus children as the cheer squad. 

My husband Richard, Helen our pacer, Lina plus children as the cheer squad. 

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CP5 was only a short while after we left the previous one so we had a reasonably quick stop here. My foot at this point was really quite painful and now my knee had started to hurt too so I applied someRock Tape and off we went.

The temperature that day rose to 23°C so it was a welcome relief as the sun started to move towards the horizon. It was also the day of the Royal Wedding (Prince Harry and Megan Markle) so it was a little torturous having to run past garden parties where everyone was drinking and having fun in the sun!

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We reached CP6 at Dunster Beach Car Park where our families were once again waiting for us. There seemed to be even less choice of food at this check point than any of the previous ones. The same old peanut butter and jam wraps and crisps. I was starting to get a little wound up by it but looked forward to the hot food we’d been promised at the next checkpoint at 56 Miles  

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he next stretch was along the beach before starting the first of many brutal ascents in the second half of the race. After a tough slog uphill we finally reached the top and onto a lovely ridge of undulating terrain. The views from here were spectacular and the sun was starting to set, it really was incredible!

CP6 was at Bossington and finally we could have a longer rest and  get changed into night gear. Prior to the event I had emailed the organiser about a hot meal and this checkpoint and was told that we could expect a good hearty meal. The checkpoints until this point has been stocked with the same range of snacks and we were yet to have a substantial feed. So when we were offered half a can of vegetable soup and a bread roll, although delicious, barely touched the sides. I always carry around 500 calories of nutrition on me but I stocked up with extra at this checkpoint as I was really concerned about the lack of calories we’d had so far. 

Although we’d had a good long rest and had freshened up, we were now heading into the night and we wouldn’t see our families until the morning. It would also be the first time I’ve ran all the way through the night, and I was feeling a bit nervous about how the next few hours would pan out. Our pacer Helen was meeting us at Webber’s Post, around 70 Miles, so at least we had that to look forward to.  

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P8 was only 4 flat miles away so we had a very quick stop to grab some food on the go. At this point our good friend, Liv, put in a phone call to say how proud she was of us and that my running group, a women’s only group called Run Like a Girl, were all rooting for us and asking for updates. In addition to this, my phone had a steady stream of messages coming in through various media channels and it was reassuring to know that so many people were backing us and sending virtual cheers.  

We started off well but things soon took a bad turn. The GPX file that the organiser had sent out prior to the event was wrong and had put us in the middle of a forest with no clear footpath. We backed and forthed for over an hour trying to figure out the directions but we were making no progress. It was cold and we were genuinely starting to worry. There was a glimmer of grace when Caroline fell down a badger set which raised a bit of a giggle. Eventually we called Helen who was already en route to the meeting point at Webber’s Post - we sent her a pin drop of our location (thank goodness for smart phones!) and she was soon with us. Helen was a breath of fresh air as she was full of energy and had a clear mind. It meant that Caroline and I only had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other whilst Helen navigated and kept us moving forward.

By time we’d reached Webber’s Post, my spirit was just about broken. It had been over four hours since the last checkpoint and all I wanted was a good cry and a cup of tea. The volunteer at CP9 was happy to put the kettle on but then asked us if we had a tea bag for him to make a cuppa with! At which point I cried, again. 

Onwards and upwards the next section was a 10 mile loop which brought us back to Webber’s Post, but not before we faced the steepest ascent of the entire course.  Just prior to this we’d taken a moment to appreciate the stunning sunrise which with it brought new energy - the long and hellish night was over and today was the day we would complete 100 Miles. 

Dawning of a new day  

Dawning of a new day  

The next few miles were technical underfoot and a fairly steep ascent. I was more frustrated than ever that my knee just couldn’t cope with anything beyond a certain degree and I became increasingly aware of slowing down the group. Everything else felt okay; my legs were strong and the new day had given me fresh energy but at this point, with 25 Miles still to go and knew that we were running out of time. 

The sunrise brought us fresh energy despite the worlds longest night  

The sunrise brought us fresh energy despite the worlds longest night  

CP10 was a second stop Webber’s Post  (we’d done a loop) and we didn’t stop long, we had to keep moving. Helen had already put in a phone call to my husband Richard to let him know about the food situation so just a few miles later he popped up with a McDonalds breakfast .. never before has a sausage and egg McMuffin tasted so good! .. washed down with a hot cup of tea, we had new energy!

What happened next is something that didn’t come easy and believe me when I say that for mile upon mile I battled with myself until I knew there was very little time left and the decision had to be made - I told Caroline that she had to go on without me because I didn’t want my injury to cost her the cut off time. I knew I’d make it to 100 miles at some point that day, there was no question of would I or won’t I, just when. So we agreed that Caroline would run ahead and Helen would stay with me until we got to the finish. It was pretty soul destroying to see Caroline run off until she was out of sight but I had to keep reminding myself of how strong I still felt after 85 Miles and it was just my injury that had slowed me down. 

CP10 and 11 were a blur. All I really remember is my husband telling me that time was tight but I could still make the cut off time, I just had to dig deeper than ever, get my head down and move as fast as I could for the last 7 Miles. The lady at the final check point who had won the Hilly 50 the day before told me that it was going to hurt anyway so just push hard, get the job done and they’d all be at the finish to help me deal with the pain. I’ll be forever thankful for those words because they really did help power me through those final miles.

I was like a woman possessed ascending the final climb which was Bossington hill. I can honestly say that I’ve never had to dig as deep as I did in that final uphill push and once I reached the top I was utterly exhausted. Helen was brilliant and knew exactly how to handle me at this stage. She made allowances for me to have small recovery times when the pain in my foot became too much but then she also gave a gentle nudge when she knew I could push on a bit. 

 

Bossington Hill.. the final climb (steeper than in the pic!)

Bossington Hill.. the final climb (steeper than in the pic!)

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We walked the majority of the last 2 miles as it was a steep downhill and my knee just couldn’t cope. Once on the flat we managed a run/walk until the last 0.3 mile at which point I was absolutely clear in my mind that I wanted to finish the race running.  

This was it! 103 miles clocked (65 of which I was in pain)  11,000ft elevation, 31.5 hours on my feet. 22 runners had started and only 10 of us made the cut off. I could see my family and friends in the finishing car park and hear their cheers. Helen and I briefly stopped for a hug and I thanked her for keeping me going. The tears were streaming down my face but I was beyond elated to finally finish the race within the cut off time. 

My husband and children rushed over to give me hugs and hand me my medal, which incidentally is a decent bit of bling. I was reunited with Caroline and we had a good cry together (tears of joy!) .. the relief of it all finally being over was overwhelming. 

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We did it. We ran 100 miles of incredibly tough terrain and brutal elevation. We are Centurions. 

A huge thank you to the unsung heroes in all of this; our families and the lovely Lina who were pretty much at every checkpoint after CP4, cheering us along, and ferrying around us to make sure we had everything we needed. Helen, our pacer who led us through the night and to the finish, clocking a whopping 37 Miles! The volunteers who give up their spare time to man the checkpoints and offer encouragement. All of our supporters who kept us going with incredible messages and phone calls, it really made a huge difference. Thank you everyone! 

Top crew!

Top crew!

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As a word of warning to anyone considering doing this race, I strongly recommend that you go prepared to be self sufficient (including tea bags!) as there is a distinct lack of food throughout the entire course. Make sure you’re well acquainted with the route and take an OS map. This race is NOT for the feint hearted! 

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