CCC

Challenge – Craziness – Courage

We arrived in Chamonix in the dark, late at night and did not see much of the mountains until the next morning. When I say we, I mean my husband Adam, my parents and myself. My parents came all the way from Namibia to watch me race – very exciting! – since, living in Namibia, they obviously can’t watch me race very often.

When I woke up the next morning, looked out the chalet window and saw the snow-capped mountains all around, Mont Blanc and its magical landscape – happiness and contentment overcame me! It was as if this sense of gratitude, purpose and belonging came over me. Other people may feel it when being by the ocean or in the desert – I feel it in the mountains.

The day before the race was spent packing my mandatory kit, strolling through central Chamonix and registration. Quite interesting, at registration they spot checked four random items of the mandatory kit. The four random items were different for each person. Later on; a long nap, packing the race backpack and dinner followed.

After coffee the next morning, we made our way by car through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur, Italy. My attempt at eating a homemade egg and bacon sandwich left me dry-heaving after a few bites and I had to give in to my nerves – not unusual for me. We walked to the start, which was already buzzing, despite the early hour. I needed the toilet, as one does when there is a lot of adrenaline shooting through the body. The toilet I found near in a sports centre sported a long queue for the gents and none for the ladies, probably a representation of the ratio of men vs. women taking part in this race, … but it also sported a longdrop! Something I certainly hadn’t seen in Europe before.

The start in CourmayeurThe start line

Since there was some time to kill until the start, I stood in my start pen, talking last minute race strategy with Adam and taking pictures with my parents – their nervousness and excitement being palpable too. The things that stick out to me today include official controllers carrying out random spot checks of the mandatory kit. I remember a lovely couple from Manchester in my start pen – Guy and Stephanie. We got chatting a bit; Guy had done the CCC last year, this year being a joint attempt – Stephanie doing it for the first time. Guy did a great job in reassuring me, and my parents for that matter, that I’ll be fine! Just before the start I received a flurry of messages, specifically from my colleagues. Clearly word had gotten around. I loved reading them!

At the start of the CCC

The first wave went off at 9am and then it was our turn. Just before the start gun went, they started playing the official theme song for the CCC – Across the Mountains by Vangelis – emotions overcame me and I had tears in my eyes. I suddenly realised that finally, finally… after dreaming about it for many years, I was about to realise my dream (or at least attempt to realise it)! I remembered sitting at work last year watching the start of the CCC on my computer via live streaming and now I was standing on the start line myself! I said a quick prayer to the saints of the mountains, sport and travel to support me in my quest.

We counted down to 1, the start gun went and we set off – hearts beating, minds racing. The first couple of kilometres were through the town and the outskirts of Courmayeur, before we hit the forest and the incline increased. The first climb up to Tête de la Tronche (Italy – see the course profile further below) – 10.4km and 1460m of ascending – was long and tough. The heat didn’t make the very steep gradient, crowded with runners, any easier. In fact, I found this climb horrible! It seemed never ending. My heart was racing and I was breathing hard. At one point I had to take a break to catch my breath and eat something, as I was feeling a bit woozy. I did think to myself that if every one of the five climbs is like that, I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end. I was very happy to reach the top after 3:03hrs.

Tete de la Tronche

On the way up to Tête de la Tronche (Italy).

Tete de la Tronche

Not long after the top I saw Guy and Stephanie sitting next to the path. Guy wasn’t feeling well and had been vomiting. That gave me a bit of perspective – the first climb was horrible, but at least my food stayed in. Guy had to withdraw two aid stations later due to severe heat exhaustion, but Stephanie continued by herself and finished.

Finally some downhill! But I was tentative. I didn’t want to trip and fall, and I also wanted to save my quads for later. There was still a lot more downhill to come. 50min later I reached the next aid station, Refuge Bertone (Italy; 14.7km and total time of 3:53hrs), which was mayhem. It was like a beehive – runners everywhere! Chaos! There was barely space to move around. From here onwards I was looking forward to seeing Adam and my parents at Arnuva, two aid stations later. It was a long way to go still – over 2hrs, but it drove me on.

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From here the path meandered along the side of the mountain and there were more runnable sections, but not many. Very deceiving on the course profile! There was also more uphill on this stretch and it was back to power hiking. The views were just stunning and ever changing – quick stops for photos were allowed. As you do in a long race, you meet some interesting and lovely people:

– There was the father and son pair running together – just awesome!
– Then there was this guy who broke two toes just a month ago!
– There were three Portuguese friends running together. One of them had been to Namibia, so there was some reminiscing. They thought it was very brave that I was running this race on my own as a woman.
– One guy asked me if I was born like this; if it was in my DNA or whether I just trained very hard. I had to laugh to myself. If only he knew. It’s definitely not in my DNA… It’s damn hard work! 
 

I never stuck with one person or group of runners for the sake of it. If they were faster, I let them go. If I was faster, I overtook them. That’s how I preferred it – I wanted to go at my own pace.

After an hour and a quarter I reached the next aid station, Refuge Bonatti (Italy; 22.1km and a total time of 5:11hrs), and made a very brief stop. I still had plenty of water in my hydration pack, so just had some coke, some cheese and sausages, and off I was again. The course was undulating at best. But I was in the Alps, what did I expect?!

On the way to Refuge Bonatti

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Now I was running fuelled by the knowledge that I would see Adam and my parents at the next aid station – a great motivator and driver, when you’re running by yourself for so long. For the last 2km the route dropped sharply into Arnuva (Italy; 27.3km and a total time of 6:10hrs) and I could hear Adam shout my name – and my legs immediately felt lighter. Great excitement on both sides… my parents had lots of questions. How was I doing? How was I feeling? If I was tired? Was I hurting? I was good and still smiling. I took a bit more time to refuel here before the next climb – oranges, cold cut meats, cheese, dark chocolate… There was a lot of food on offer. My dad expressed concerns about the next climb, being long and very exposed to the sun, but for some reason I was not too concerned. There was no optionality anyway, if I wanted to get to the finish line.

On the way up to Grand Col Ferret

On the way up to Grand Col Ferret.

I said good-bye and set off again. And yes, it was hot! The entire climb was exposed to the sun and I could feel my calves getting burnt. Stupidly, the only place I didn’t put any sunblock on – I was wondering if I’d ever learn that?! Lots of people took brief refuge in little streams and troughs along the way. For me it was still manageable, but I now felt like I deserved a “treat”, so took my iPod out and listened to some rock. This climb was not near as steep as the first one and I found it much easier, as I found a great rhythm and just kept moving. Slowly. Steadily. I didn’t stop much at all. Just one foot in front of the other. With rock music in my ear. I reached the top of Grand Col Ferret at 2537m altitude after 1:30hrs (now in Switzerland; 31.8km in a total time of 7:40hrs). The views from up here were stunning. Snow-capped mountains and glaciers on the one side and lush green valleys on the other. I made a very quick pit stop behind some rocks and started the descent. It was cold up there anyway and no food or water, so no point hanging around.

Near the top of Grand Col Ferret

The view near the top of Grand Col Ferret.

View from Grand Col Ferret

The first part of the descent was very runnable and it felt good to move a bit faster again. You still had to watch your footing, as it was very rocky at times. We curved around the mountainside and wow! What a beautiful view of the valley below in sunset. How privileged I am to be here and to be able to do this. It was just so spectacular! – The descent continued at varying gradients, but again, the final stretch dropped down more sharply and was very gnarly with roots. I took it easy – I didn’t want to fall, but also didn’t want to thrash my quads yet, as I knew more downhill was awaiting me. I arrived at next aid station, La Fouly, 1:27hrs later (Switzerland; 41.5km and total of 9:07hrs), beating my family to it. They had 100km around the mountain to make up and it was always going to be touch and go. But they clocked in 2 minutes after me – elation once again. I refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some food and coke, and chatted to my family for a bit while finishing off the food. Adam read me some comments and quotes from my friends and wider family. They were hilarious and really cheered me up.

“This hill is your bitch.”
“Kat is having such an awesome run that Morgan Freeman should narrate it.”
“Marathoners say the sky is the limit; ultra-runners say there are footprints on the moon.” 
 

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Soon after I left the aid station, two official controllers came towards me, checked my number and chip and walked on. That was it. Weird. The route was now running alongside the river, and although it was relatively flat, it was not easy to run, as it was very stony. We ran through a gorgeous, very picturesque little Swiss village, Praz de Fort (Switzerland), where children made their own aid station and were handing out drinks to the runners. It was one of these typical, picture-perfect Alpine villages with lots of flower pots, water troughs and fire wood stacked up to the roofs. Shortly after Praz de Fort the route kicked up again for 2km to the next aid station. As we entered the forest, I saw some wood carvings. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I asked others and they saw it too. There was a mushroom, a wild boar, an ibex and more. I found joy in seeing these here in this forest so unexpectedly. It was getting dark now, and being in the forest made it even darker, but I was too lazy to get out my head torch, as the next aid station was not far. The moon was slowly rising – it was nearly full moon – and it looked magnificent.

Walking into the aid station tent at Champex-Lac (Switzerland; 55.5km in a total time of 11:49hrs), I entered a different world. Coming from the darkness, solitude and tranquillity outside, I thought I walked into a beer tent at the Oktoberfest! It was mayhem. It was chaos. It was noisy. It was super crowded. Runners sitting along wooden benches and tables, eating and rehydrating. It was a shock to the senses. I found my family and we sat down in a quieter corner of the tent. I took my time at this aid station. I changed into fresh dry kit, which was great – it instantly made me feel a bit refreshed. It was also really necessary, as I was suffering from severe chafing in the nether regions and it hurt! I repacked my backpack, got all my kit for night out and stocked up on food. Then I sat down, had some warm food – bolognaise! – and chatted to my family. Adam told me about a few more comments from my siblings. Apparently my younger sister said: “Not sure who this Zach Miller is [the men’s winner of the CCC], but I think my sister rocks!”🙂 And my brother asked about the weather forecast for the night, being very concerned about me running around the mountains on my own in the middle of the night. He made me promise to try and stick to other people. – I really enjoyed these comments; it breaks the monotony and gives you something to remember in tougher moments.

Heading out of the aid station, it was properly dark now and everyone had their head torches on. I felt refreshed and was intrigued to see how the second half of the race would pan out – running through the night being new for me too. The temperature was still quite mild at first, but as I climbed higher, it got colder and I had to put on base layer and my jacket too. The climb, la Bovine, started out rocky and only got worse. The rocks got bigger and bigger. At times I had to pull myself up with my arms over boulders and rocks! It was slow, difficult and horrible! It took all my determination to not look at my watch every few seconds to see how many metres of vertical line I had left – I forced myself to wait at least ten zig-zags. At some point nausea set in and it would not let up. Again and again, bouts of nausea overcame me. At times I felt weak and was shaking. I was entering a different type of challenge now – a challenge of the mind! My trainer had said to me beforehand: “When your legs are tired, run with your heart.” It was here when I remembered his words for the first time and thought to myself: “I think I have to start running with my heart now.” It was time to just suck it up. It was unsettling, but at least I didn’t vomit. It also made eating more difficult and nothing I had with me in my backpack appealed to me at this point. At the time I had no idea what it was, but in hindsight I believe I was not sufficiently fuelled and had not eaten enough – hypoglycaemic.

After what felt like an eternity I finally reached the top, and the going got much easier on grass-overgrown paths. The night was very clear with the moon up high and we had a stunning view down into the valley and the lights of the villages. It was breath-taking and lifted my mood, despite not feeling great. While starting to make my way down again, the course took us past little farms and across pastures. From far away you could hear the ringing of the cow bells that is so familiar in the Alps. Running at night, in solitude and the ringing of cow bells through the valley – I loved it! One of my favourite moments. – I reached the next checkpoint, La Giète (Switzerland), at 67.2km and a total time of 15:14hrs. As this was only a checkpoint and not an aid station, I didn’t hang around and pushed onwards down the mountain. Soon the descent led into woods, where the path was very runnable and I made good time. I ran as much as possible, but took it easy over rocky and gnarly stretches. Despite that, I tripped and fell. Luckily I was able to catch myself on some branches on the side, but my heart was racing.

After running downhill for an hour, I was so glad when I arrived at the next aid station, Trient (Switzerland; 72.1km and a total time of 16:14hrs), and utterly exhausted. I just collapsed on one of the benches, unable to move. It was the lowest I felt during the entire race. Luckily Adam was there, despite it being 1:30 in the morning, and he took over. I was still not feeling great and didn’t have appetite for anything. He brought me some bouillon, something I usually don’t like at all, but at this low point this was the only thing I could stomach. I had two bowls, a bit of cheese and some coke, and felt better. I now had less than 30km to go, but I realised it would also take me another 8hrs or so! But I am not allowed think like that! I had to stay positive.

After 20min of rest, I forced myself up and disappeared into the darkness again. It was not easy to the leave the warmth and comfort of the aid station. To be honest, the next climb is still a blur to me. I remember it was rocky and had lots of zig-zags, but it was nowhere near as hard as the previous climb. I also remember a British girl coming back down, going back to the aid station, as she could not stop vomiting! At some point during the uphill I wondered why there was this bright light shining through the trees. How could there be a street lamp here?! It was actually the moon! Just before the next checkpoint I saw a big flock of sheep sleeping scattered around on a hillside. They looked so peaceful and unperturbed at our presence. I reached Catogne (Switzerland), the next checkpoint, after 2hrs (77.3km and total time of 18:16hrs). I didn’t spend time here and started the downhill. This downhill made for great running and I really pushed it, overtaking lots of people. Maybe also the knowledge of seeing Adam and my parents at the next aid station drove me on. I ran hard – well, as hard as you can at night on a rocky, gnarly path going downhill. And I fell hard! It was bound to happen. I tripped over a root and took a proper fall. Due to the weight of my backpack I even did a full roll. I got up, brushed off the mud and inspected the grazings – luckily nothing much – and continued down the mountain. But I was shaken and my heart was racing! The last part to the aid station in Vallorcine (back in France again) dropped down very steeply and I was forced to take it steady. After all, I didn’t want to fall again.

As I got off the mountain, reappearing out of the dark (after 82.6km and a total time of 19:20hrs), Adam and my parents were waiting for me, although it was 4:30 in the morning! It was so good to see them. I so appreciated them being there, it was kind of a relief. I think they were also very relieved to see me and that I was still in one piece, but they could see that I was exhausted now. We were all a bit emotional. I took a short break at the aid station; refueled, got a plaster for my thumb and was out again. On the way out I briefly chatted to my family – I would see them again shortly. I had 18km left and it was hard to understand that that would still take me 4-5hrs?! I was again checked by two controllers coming from the other direction not long after the aid station!

On the profile I had seen that the first 2km were gently upward sloping, after which it would kick up steeply for about 700m of vertical. I power-hiked the first part at a good pace. As I was getting closer to the steep section, I could see a chain of lights of the runners going up the mountain. I am not sure why exactly, but this moment of panic just overcame me. It looked so long and steep, and so hard! In that fleeting moment, I was just not sure how I would manage it. I was coming up to the intersection where the main road leads into Chamonix – my family was waiting there for me. From far away I called for Adam and they could tell that I was in distress. I told them that it looked so steep and so long, and that I’m not sure I can do it anymore. Adam immediately said: “You will be fine, there is only this bit left and then it’s all downhill.” and my mother added: “No no, everyone says this climb is not that bad.” Then one of the marshals, who could obviously see I was worried, said: “Katharina you are looking good. You MUST go to Chamonix now!” I trudged off into the darkness. As I was alone again, I still heard the marshal shout “GO KATHARINA, GO!” It did make me smile. I also wondered about what my mother had said. How, out of all the people, would she know what this last climb was like?! She did not really know the profile and for sure would not have spoken to anybody about it. I guess sometimes mothers just know what to say.

Slowly I climbed higher and higher. I tried not to look up and forced myself not to look at my watch too often. It was tough – rocky with lots of boulder, but not as tough as the first climb during the night. I started overtaking people, including a train of eight people. It’s not easy to overtake people on these narrow mountain paths with a sheer drop on the one side and I could only overtake one or two people at the time. I had made myself a list of people that I would think of if I am not feeling great.

– I thought of my colleague who had lost two family members in the space of two months over the summer.
– I thought of a friend of mine who had gone through a very tough time and was now seeing the light on the other side.
– I thought of my friend Anna who is pregnant and can only go upstairs with lots of huffing and puffing, but is usually very fit too.
– I also thought of my Godson Luuk, who I absolutely adore, and his laughing and smiling.
 
All of these made me grateful to be here, to be able to do this and pushed me on.
 
Sunrise to the East

Dawn across the Alps to the East.

Closer to the top it was finally light enough and I could switch off my headlamp. I had schemed with my trainer that at sunrise, I could treat myself to some nice food, something different, like a nice sandwich. At the time though, the thought of food did not appeal to me and there was nothing I felt like eating. It was energy gels all the way. Instead, I was just happy to be up here for sunrise and that the sleep monster never came to visit me. I made it a game that the sun was chasing me and wondered how long I would be able to stay ahead of it. It had not appeared from behind the mountains yet. I finally reached the top of la Tête aux Vents after 2:28hrs (France; 90.3km and a total time of 21:49hrs). I thought that was it, but it wasn’t! The next 3km were incredibly tough – much much harder than expected. It was practically a boulder field and not runnable at all. I got very frustrated with my slow progress and gave up on the idea of finishing in less than 24hrs. I was so glad and relieved when I finally reached the last aid station, La Flégère (France), 48min later. It was here where the sun finally caught me. Seeing the first sun rays against the mountains peaks was just stunning. I enjoyed watching how they slowly moved lower and lower into the valley.

Sunrise to the West

The first sun rays on Mont Blanc to the West.

I slurped down another bouillon and had some coke. I also saw the 3 Portuguese friends here again, who had passed me at the start of the night. Tortoise vs hare, huh?! I asked the aid station staff how long it usually takes to get down into Chamonix. They said a good hour, 6km on forest paths and 2km in the village. I had 1:40hrs left to 24hrs. Right! I told myself Vasbyt Poppie (which is Afrikaans and means as much as Hang in there, be tough Girl.) and set off downhill. I ran and I ran hard. The first part was down a ski run and then into woods, which was extremely technical with roots and little rocks everywhere; very gnarly and uneven. You had to be really careful and sure-footed. I pushed it, but didn’t take unnecessary risks and walked where warranted. Besides being fueled by this innate desire to break 24hrs, I overtook more people and that spurred me on further. As I got lower, the technical path slowly turned into an easy-to-run path. I continued running hard. I could feel Adam was getting worried, so I sent him a quick text saying: “Nearly in town.” He later told me that he was getting worried.

There were now also some spectators on the side, cheering us on. Very strange, at one point we ran right through the garden of a gorgeous, quaint café, Chalet de La Floria! I was so confused that I thought I was lost. Then finally I hit the road into the village with half an hour to go. I did not let up on the pace. It felt like a long way through the streets of Chamonix! Eventually I got into the village center, where some people were lining the route, cheering us on. I spotted Adam and my parents, who handed me a Namibian flag. Emotions washed over me. I was exhausted. I was tired. I was hurting. But I was happy. And all I could do was smile. So after 23:39:59hrs I ran into the finish line, spectators clapping and cheering, holding up the Namibian flag with the biggest smile on my face. It was one of the best moments!

CCC finish line

CCC finish line

During the following night I got up and hobbled to the window of our chalet. We had a view of the final downhill, coming down from the last aid station, La Flégère. I saw a number of little lights dotted along the route – the UTMB runners, of the 160km route. I felt huge admiration for them, out there for a second night in a row. I also felt deep content about my own achievement, and at that point I didn’t feel like I needed to be out there for a second night.

What I have learnt from this race:
1) Never underestimate visualisation and mental preparation. My race would have been very different if I hadn’t focused on mental preparation with my trainer. Just imagine yourself going through the motions and also think about different difficult situation, when you are struggling; what you can do to feel better or if it is time to just suck it up. It was absolute key to finishing this race.
 
2) Think about your nutrition carefully. I thought about my nutrition beforehand, but not enough. Firstly, I took too much, so made my backpack unnecessarily heavier. I also should have taken more variety of different foods. So if you get tired or sick of a certain taste, you have something else to switch to.
 
3) Think about your kit carefully. If you think you will do such a race again, invest in proper, good quality, lightweight kit. No point in buying cheaper, heavier kit now and then you find yourself investing in more kit in a few months’ or years’ time. And the weight in your backpack definitely adds up!
 
Results & Stats:
Time: 23:39:59
Overall position: 866th      (starters: 2129; finishers: 1470)
Gender position: 88th        (starters: 278; finishers: 192)
Age group position: 49th  (starters: 107; finishers: 83)
 
CCC profile

CCC course profile

 

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Getting Ready for The Big One

Getting ready for the CCC

4 days, 5 sleeps! It’s the final few days before my big race this year – the CCC – 100km in the Alps, three quarters around the Mont Blanc (the “little sister” race of the UTMB).

Having been struck down by glandular fever in February/March has severally hampered my training during the build-up. However, I still managed several crucial long runs, albeit not as much weekly mileage as I would have liked to. At some point earlier in the year, it wasn’t even clear whether I would be able to race in the first place. So I am very happy to make it to the start line.

Over the past days my nerves have been building. I am getting butterflies more and more often. I am also losing my appetite, which is not great, but not unusual for me when I get nervous (or stressed). I got my last pieces of mandatory kit this weekend and started packing all the kit today. And I baked some very delicious dark chocolate coconut energy bars to distract me a bit. They turned out very yummy!

My parents are joining us to support and watch me during the race as well, which I am incredibly excited about. They are flying over all the way from Namibia, and have not watched me race often at all. It is great to have them there at such a big occasion for me. That alone is a massive boost for me and a big privilege. Although, after they read a bit about the race, I think they are more nervous than I am! My father keeps asking me how I am feeling and how my body is, i.e. if I am sick or injured. And he keeps telling me that I can drop out if I feel I can’t go on. Thanks Papa!

How am I feeling? Yes, I am nervous. Of course. Lots of adrenaline shooting through my body. It comes and goes in waves of excitement, nervousness and calmness. Also lots of questions shooting through my head. What will the weather be like? Will I be able to cope with it? (I had a brush with hypothermia before and don’t fancy that again!) When will the suffering start? What will it be like running through the night? Will the sleep monster come visit me?

I did some visualisation and I feel ready. Yes, I could be fitter and stronger, however given my situation, I am happy to make it to the start line and give it my best. I know it will be tough – physically and mentally, nonetheless I am looking forward to it. I know it will hurt, but that’s why we put ourselves through it and subject ourselves to it, isn’t it?

We will see on Friday and Saturday. I guess it’s just one foot in front of the other.🙂

CCC profile

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Pilgrim Challenge – Round Two

Day 1 – Farnham to Merstham

January arrived and the Pilgrim Challenge was just around the corner. Training had gone quite well until the last few weeks before. During skiing I fell on my coccyx. Ouch! Incredibly painful! As a result I had to miss out on a few training sessions. Adding to this I got sick the week before the race… Great! Really not ideal. Luckily, miraculously, it had cleared by race day.

On race day morning Adam and myself together with our partner-in-crime Shaun made our way to the start of the race near Farnham in the Surrey Hills. A thin layer of snow had fallen overnight and everything was beautifully white. But alas – it was cold! I wore four layers!!! Two base layers, a thinner jacket and a rain jacket. When we arrived at the start, it was already buzzing with people. We registered, handed in our overnight bags, had a coffee and it was almost time to go. Because of the less-than-ideal build-up to the race, my aim had changed from competing to completing, and thus, I was relatively relaxed at the start, for my standards anyway.

Pilgrim Challenge - before the start

Shaun, myself and Adam before the start.

Pilgrim Challenge - Start of Day 1

At the start of Day 1. -Photo courtesy of Carel du Plessis.-

I took the first few kilometres really easy. Just easing myself into the race, finding a good rhythm. It would be a long day and in addition, I was not 100% the week leading up to the race. Adam and Shaun started with me, but then soon dashed off, as per usual. It felt like I was towards the back of the field, but I didn’t let it bother me. I was saving my energy for later.

I was nervous for the first few kilometres. At every little sign or symptom I got worried my cold-symptoms were coming back. Or maybe there were no symptoms at all? “Oh, my throat is feeling a bit dry. Am I getting a sore throat?” and “Is my heart rate higher than it should be?” Total paranoia! I had promised my sister, who is a doctor that I would stop if I wasn’t feeling well. “Am I feeling more tired now than last year at this point?” “How am I feeling on this uphill? Does it feel tougher than it should?” The ultra-athlete mind can race around while you are racing around! There was nothing! I was absolutely fine and after a few kilometres I started to relax and just enjoy being out there.

Pilgrim Challenge - North Downs Way

-Photo courtesy of Lighttrapper Photography.-

Our friend Malcolm was standing just by Guildford, cheering me on, even running a kilometer with me, a very welcome distraction. He also told me that Adam and Shaun were only two minutes ahead. Of course I enjoyed hearing that. Just after Guildford I caught up with a lovely lady in a striking purple jacket. She was wearing really cool ‘Dirty Girl‘ gaiters and that got us talking. We were running and chatting for a while, until a call of nature split us up.

I knew my close friend Debbie and her husband Guillaume were waiting for me at Shere Lane. From far away I saw her white puffy down jacket. As soon as I waved, she started screaming “Kaaaaaat” and cheering me on. I immediately began to well up. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I was running alone for quite a while and it was so nice to hear her familiar and enthusiastic voice cheering me on. Once I caught up to them, there were a lot of hugs and kisses, photos and good-luck wishes. It was great to see them!

Pilgrim Challenge - Shere Lane

Seeing my friend Debbie at Shere Lane. -Photo courtesy of XNRG.-

Pilgrim Challenge - Kat

-Photo courtesy of XNRG.-

I reached checkpoint 2 (25km) and refilled my hydration bladder, which ended up being a total faff and things falling out of my backpack. Too much haste! It had started raining and I was cold. I had been putting off putting on my rain jacket, just because it’s such a mission with the backpack on. I finally put it on and felt warmer instantly. Silly me!

As I ran on, I saw that familiar purple jacket just ahead of me, and I caught up with the lovely lady I had met earlier. From here on we ran together to the finish line. I found out that her name was Janette; she is the manager of a bookstore in London and has a son in his twenties. I also found out later on that she is very good on uphills!

We power-hiked up Box Hill, chatted here and there, and shared some of my tasty little sausages. Although at some point I was craving an apple. Very random! It was very comfortable running with Janette – very relaxed. She was great company. Conversation was easy. Silence was comfortable. It just clicked and I felt at ease. It also helped massively not having to run the whole way on my own. You can read Janette’s race report here.

Pilgrim Challenge - Kat

-Photo courtesy of Carel du Plessis.-

We reached the third checkpoint (37km) and to my joy I discovered that Janette also didn’t faff around at aid stations. We were in and out, and on we soldiered. The going got tough. The second half of the course was a lot muddier due to the constant rain and the melted snow. Of course, the body also started hurting now. There wasn’t much talking anymore and often the metronomic tack tack tack of our shoes in the thick mud was the only noise.  Following her shoes was almost mesmerising. At times it was as if the world only existed of this pair of shoes in front of me and myself. At points I had to put in quite a bit of effort to hang on. From time to time I gave Janette some updates on our progress – the remaining distance and our estimated time of arrival. A few days later I realised that my calculations at the time were hopelessly wrong. The ultra-mind! Luckily we beat my estimates anyway.

Pilgrim Challenge - Box Hill

The weather was miserable! -Photo courtesy of Carel du Plessis.-

We powered up Reigate Hill. Well, Janette did! I dragged myself up. That’s where I learnt that she enjoyed uphills. At the top of Reigate Hill we saw somebody trying to snowboard down the hill on a very thin layer of snow. I found it amusing, but also admired the initiative. It made me smile. We flew through the last checkpoint – 5km to go. I was not exactly in a happy place. I was hurting. I was hungry. And the weather was miserable! As if Janette felt I was struggling, – Maybe she did?! – she asked me how I got into running. We chatted about how each of us got into running, a great distraction from the pain. Next thing I saw my friend Channari, running us into the finish! 6:01:25 on the clock – 10min faster than last year. Adam and Shaun had a good day too and had finished 15min earlier.

The evening was spent cleaning up, eating lots and faffing even more with race kit. As usual at the Xtreme Energy races, it was a lively atmosphere with lots of chatting to fellow competitors and camaraderie amongst ultra-runners. At 10pm race director Neil came, all of us already in our sleeping bags, with a big box of chocolates, going around from person to person. And then the lights in the school hall went out.

Day 2 – Merstham to Farnham

I remember waking up the following morning and my legs didn’t feel nearly as bad as the year before. That was good sign! Hopefully it would make for a not-too-painful day ahead, and also showed improvement to last year.

I was allocated to the first start group, but decided to change to the second start group so I would be able to run together with Adam and Shaun. It had snowed some more overnight, at least on the Eastern side of the North Downs Way. And it was even colder than yesterday! Of course I was cold. I am always cold!

The three of us started really easy and soon were at the back of the second start group, and therefore at the back of the entire race. I didn’t care. I just thought of the hare and the tortoise. We ran across Reigate Hill, which was now covered in a proper blanket of snow. The views of the surrounding snow-covered hills were simply stunning! We passed a local running club group on their morning run, or it was more like, they passed us. The leader mentioned it was National Yorkshire Pudding Day today and surely we would need those today. I only managed a wry smile. We had only just started our day of running and it would be another 5+hrs before I could think of anything like Yorkshire Pudding!

Pilgrim Challenge - near Reigate Hill

Shaun and I running across Reigate Hill in the snow.

Pilgrim Challenge

The view from Reigate Hill. -Photo courtesy of Lighttrapper Photography.-

Pilgrim Challenge

-Photo courtesy of Lighttrapper Photograhy.-

Pilgrim Challenge - near Reigate Hill

Reigate Hill in the snow. -Photo courtesy of Carel du Plessis.-

Despite wearing four layers, I was still cold. The wind was sharp today and the wind chill made it a lot worse. At least it didn’t rain. I always struggle to get the layering system right and today wasn’t different. Very frustrating! I felt cold for long periods of time. Eating some food helped a bit, but I never felt comfortably warm until much later towards the end of the race.  Maybe cos I ran harder after I ignited the after-burners?

Our friends had come out in full force on Day 2 and were waiting for us when we reached checkpoint 2 at Ranmore Common, cheering us on. It was so awesome that they made the effort to come all the way out here to support us and it really lifted my spirits. We had a quick chat while refuelling and then raced on. Over the next stretch we slowly started reeling in some of the other runners. I also recognised some of the ladies placed ahead of me. It spurred me on – the tortoise was catching the hare.

Pilgrim Challenge - Newlands Corner

Mud, mud, and more mud…

In the meantime our friends had moved to their next stop – Newlands Corner. A few more had joined, including my friend Debbie. Today they had made signs, reading some motivational quotes to cheer us on. So awesome! I think we had the biggest support crew out there!

Pilgrim Challenge - Newlands Corner

Seeing our friends! -Photo courtesy of XNRG.-

Pilgrim Challenge - Newlands Corner

With our friends Debbie & Guillaume by Newlands Corner. -Photo courtesy of XNRG.-

The running wasn’t easy today. The snow had melted by now and it was incredibly muddy and slippery, making it all the more taxing and exhausting. There was absolutely no point running around the puddles and mud anymore. Just before Guildford we overtook “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” Sir Ranulph Fiennes. I was a bit star-struck when I ran past him and asked him if he was ok. How silly! Of course a legend like him would be fine in such a race.

Just near Puttenham we saw our friends again. The group had grown further and there were eight of them now. We could hear their cheers and shouting from far away. They were having a good old time drinking coffee and beer at the local pub, but had also had organised us some coke. Just perfect! Although, I was craving an apple again! How strange!

Shaun was running strong today and at times he ran a bit ahead. At some point he started pointing numbers in the air. At first I had no idea what he was doing, but then figured out that he was pointing out the number of runners within his sight ahead of him that we could still overtake. This became sort of a game of how many more runners we could reel in and it spurred us on. I picked up the pace for the last 4-5km – igniting the after-burners. It felt good and warmed me up too. Out of the blue Adam suddenly said #shutuplegs. So funny! I burst out laughing! So true though and I started repeating it as a mantra to myself again and again over the final kilometres, finding a rhythm and a way to beat the pain.

I was so relieved when the finish line was finally in sight. Across one more field. I could hear our friends cheering us on all the way across the field from the finish line. Shaun, Adam and I finished together and I felt quite emotional. I guess it’s the relief that the pain is over, but also the joy that I finished another big race – and not too badly either – another 10min faster today. And then came the celebrating with good friends, yummy champagne and the sharing of race stories – what an awesome weekend of racing!

Pilgrim Challenge - by Guildford

Nearing the finish line – myself, Adam & Shaun.

Pilgrim Challenge - finish line

At the finish line with our friends – the support crew!

line break

Race stats:
Day 1:
Time: 6:01:25
Gender position: 15th
Nutrition: 2 9bar energy bars, 2 Clif bloks, mini sausages, ~2l water/electrolytes.
 
Day 2:
Time: 6:17:08
Gender position: 10th
Nutrition: 1 9bar energy bar, 3 Clif bloks, 2 GU gels, ~2l water/electrolytes.
 
Overall:
Time: 12:18:33 (21min faster than last year!)
Gender position: 7th
Overall position: 41st
 

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Matterhorn Ultraks

Pushing through the dark patches.

Excitedly we returned to Zermatt for the Matterhorn Ultraks for a second year in a row. Now, a year later, a year of no back injury and more consistent training, I was eager to test myself. We had also convinced some more friends to come along. Anna and Mike joined us again, and this year also their friend Dima. In addition, our friends Shaun and Channari came along. All of us would run the race, albeit different distances.

The day before was spent again checking out the town, registering for the race, getting our race kit ready and relaxing in the sun with a drink.

Aperol Spritz

Aperol Spritz

Race kit prep

Race kit prep

I felt nervous on the morning of the race. I had set myself the target of running faster than last year – doable. Really though, I wanted to run as close as possible to 9hrs – ambitious, and maybe unrealistic in hindsight. It was very cool on the morning of the race, around zero degrees (!!), and immediately posed the challenge of “layering” to me. I went with more layers, rather than less, as I get cold very easily. There was a friendly, lively atmosphere at the start as all competitors, a lot more than last year, lined up on the main square of beautiful Zermatt.

At the start line of the Ultraks Matterhorn - Mike, Adam, myself & Shaun. Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova.

At the start line of the Matterhorn Ultraks – Mike, Adam, myself & Shaun.
– Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. –

Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova.

– Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. –

Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova.

– Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. –

The race started and within minutes we were off the road into the forest and hiking up the first ascent to Sunnegga (see course profile further below). Shaun, Adam and Mike shot off ahead, and I was on my own. It felt tough – tougher than last year. I started sweating and inevitably the sweat would cool off and make me cold and uncomfortable. Clearly my layering system didn’t work very well. I really wasn’t enjoying it very much. I arrived at the first aid station at the top of Sunnegga 5min behind schedule. Not great, but it could be worse. After a very short break at the aid station, I was off again. Now my sweaty wet base layer made me really cold and I felt very uncomfortable. And very annoyed! At some point during the descent a helicopter was hovering just above us. Maybe it was the media helicopter filming? I gave it a wave – bringing a smile to my face.

The descent was short and soon enough I started the ascent to Gornergrat, the highest point of the race – 3,090m above sea level. Back to hiking it was. The layering debacle continued. Now that my base layer was pretty wet and it was cold, I struggled to keep myself warm despite going uphill. Slowly climbing higher and higher, I started feeling less and less well. I lost all appetite for any kind of food and started to feel quite nauseous and queasy. Towards the top I even felt dizzy at times. I had no idea what was going on. Was I beginning to feel the altitude? Is this what people always talk about?! It also seemed like everyone in the race was overtaking me, while I was crawling along. This really was not fun! I even considered dropping out at the next aid station at the top of Gornergrat, but I knew that I would never live that down with my friends. Besides, it was a rather weak reason to drop out and after all, mental strength is supposed to be exactly for these situations – to fight through dark patches.

So I fought on and arrived at the Gornergrat aid station, now 10min behind my self-imposed schedule, not great for my goal. The views from the Gornergrat ridge onto the glacier, however, were spectacular. Breathtaking! It reminded me of the reasons why I was here and why this race is so special.

The Gornergrat Glacier

The Gornergrat Glacier.

Something strange took my mind off the race for a minute though: A guy was doing yoga – a head stand – on a tiny little grass patch very close to the edge of the ridge with no shoes on. I could not even try to comprehend the situation. Crazy! Why would anyone do that?! But then, he probably thought the same about us.

It was very cold at the top, very cold! I decided to change my wet top for a dry one. Luckily I had a spare one with me. After a short break at the aid station I set off downhill, past the lake with the Matterhorn as a backdrop – another stunning view – and further down. It was a long downhill, roughly 50min of downhill running and at times it was quite technical. It really required constant attention and concentration. Somehow I managed to overtake some people, which spurred me on.

The Gornergrat Lake with the Matterhorn in the background. Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova.

The Gornergrat Lake with the Matterhorn in the background.
– Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. –

At the next aid station at Riffelalp I finally managed to eat something. The Swiss did not hold back at their feeding stations. It felt more like a buffet than a feeding station – cake, banana bread, cheese, sausages, bouillon, water, electrolytes, coke… Amazing! Knowing how important it is to eat regularly, I took a few minutes to eat something proper. With two of the major climbs done and some food in my stomach, I felt refuelled and ready to tackle the remainder of the race. I also tried to put the time out of my head and just enjoy the race, which only worked to a certain extent.

As I ran along, I recognised and remembered places and views from the previous year. When I started the next climb up to Schwarzsee, I recalled that there was a bucket filled with beers standing in a little, cool stream next to the path! There was no bucket this year. Probably too cold for beer. During the first part of this climb I caught up with our friend Channari; she was on the 30km course and so our routes overlapped for a few kilometers. It was so good to see and talk to somebody familiar! We had a bit of a chat. She was not feeling great today either, so we could share the pain.

The first part of the uphill was actually fairly pleasant as far as uphills in the Alps go. The gradient was not too steep and it was easy to hike at a good pace, but the second part really kicked up. It also got very windy and cold. Oh how glad I was when I arrived at the top! Somehow I also managed to make up some time and was now only 7min behind my schedule. Bonus! I refilled my hydration pack with electrolytes, ate some famous Swiss cheese and made my way downhill, and past the intermediate cut-off point at Stafel.

Our run route marked with red flags. - Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. -

Our run route marked with red flags.
– Photo courtesy of Anna Ulyanova. –

The last major uphill was arduous. It was a very stony and steep uphill. Past the waterfall, past a little shrine. All you could do is hike up at a measured pace. I started overtaking some people, which was a great feeling. Finally! One fellow competitor had run out of water and I gave him some of mine. I was very surprised that somebody would take the risk and run out of water, but then, maybe he had forgotten to fill up his bottles?! I caught up with two French runners, Thierry and Sebastien. It was Sebastien’s first ultra and Thierry agreed to run with him. We ran together for a while, chatting about running, work, and life in general. It was a great distraction and I enjoyed having some companionship after being alone for so many hours. Feeling a lot better now, I also managed to push the pace a bit, as I knew the clock was ticking.

I rumbled into the last aid station with my two French companions in tow. I was glad that downhill was over. It was very technical and not very run-able. One look at my watch and I saw that I was pretty much on par with my time from last year, so had made up some more time on the last stretch. I had an hour and 10min left to beat my time! I thought I could do it, and so did the aid station volunteers, but I would have to push it. After super quick stop I set off again towards the final, short uphill, leaving my companions behind.

Zermatt

Zermatt

I was really pushing the last 4km, the last downhill. I was adamant to get a faster time than last year, so I put the hammer down. It is not easy running: very steep, very windy, lots of zig-zagging, and quite slippery at times. My quads were hurting big time from all the downhill, and I may have been taking some unnecessary risks on this terrain, but that could not stop me. I was overtaking many people now, and that really spurred me on. Finally, the ‘1km to go’ banner! I was so relieved to see that! Now it was just a couple more bumps and then the very final stretch into Zermatt.

1km to go!

1km to go!

Then came the final turn into the main street, the finish line chute, the last few meters and I had done it! It is hard to describe this experience adequately in words. The finish line was lined with many, many people. They were all clapping, cheering us on, and making us feel like elite runners. Like a winner. It was just incredible! The best finish line experience I’ve ever had. I finally crossed the line in 9:21hrs – 10min faster than last year. Definitely worth pushing through the dark patches!

The Swiss put on a fantastic race! If you need any convincing to do the race, have a look at the official race video here.

Here are the thoughts of my friends on their race:

Adam: “The uphills were slow and hurt, the downhills were fast and exhilarating, the views were rejuvenating, the companionship and support never failing – these were the reasons to keep on running.”

Shaun: “Friendships forged under the watchful gaze of the Matterhorn.”

Channari: “For me it was running with beautiful surprises in between, like coming around the corner and seeing the Matterhorn in front of me.”

Anna: “Why the hell did I allow myself to get signed up to this and then WOOOOHOOOO IT’S DOWNHILL!!!”

Dima: “Excruciatingly wonderful.”

Ultraks Matterhorn course profile

The Matterhorn Ultraks course profile.

line break


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Chiltern Challenge

When things don’t go as expected.

Coming fresh from the two-day Round the Island Ultra, a group of four of us – Adam, Shaun, Channari and myself – decided to sign up to the Chiltern Challenge Ultra 50km four weeks later. Not sure whose clever idea that was! I think we were all still high on post-race endorphins and obviously couldn’t think clearly! I decided, I would treat it as a long training run.

Four weeks passed very quickly and next thing we found ourselves driving up to The Chilterns, Princes Risborough, in Buckinghamshire, on race day morning. Arriving at the school where the race would start, there was a very lively atmosphere and it was great to see some familiar faces. It was like seeing friends, many of whom we had met four weeks before on the Isle of Wight. Obviously, we were not the only ones not thinking clearly.

Ten minutes before the start the race director’s wife Anna told me I have to start in the later, faster group an hour later at 10am. Now, you don’t argue with the race director and his wife, do you? I had to oblige. But I wasn’t going to go on my own, so I had fellow partners-in-crime Adam and Shaun changed to the later start group as well. Yes, I got a lot of stick for it!

Now, suddenly with an hour to spare, we drank more (coffee that is!), we ate more and faffed more. At 10am the rain had more or less abated, or at least reduced to a drizzle. The countdown came and we were off. Adam and Shaun left me behind within the first kilometer. Nothing unusual, pretty much like our training runs. Not only that, after the first 10-15min I actually could not see anyone anymore. I was pretty much straight away right at the back of the faster group. Oh well, I thought, here we go. I’m sure I’ll see some of the others soon.

Well, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t see a single other person for the next 20km! It did feel quite eerie, running around in some unknown forest all by myself. And I did get concerned. I didn’t feel great at the beginning. Where had all the others gone? Surely I couldn’t have suddenly gotten so much slower in the space of four weeks? How come was everyone else so fresh and fast except me? Why have they recovered, but not me? What’s wrong? Or did I maybe get lost? I checked my GPS for the millionth time, but I was still following the right route. It was nothing in particular, my legs just didn’t feel very fresh and I felt fatigued. I guess I hadn’t fully recovered from Round the Island yet.

I was concerned, but I did not panic or stress. Resigned, I just kept “tortoise-ing” away at a pace I felt comfortable. Might as well treat it like a long training run, I thought. And since I was all by myself, I took out my iPod and started listening to my Talk Ultra podcasts. Of course the thoughts in my head kept going around and around, despite trying to block them out. More than once I heard the voice of my trainer in my head: “It’s only a training run!!

It was a beautiful route with some stunning views. Part of it was along The Ridgeway in The Chilterns, declared as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. That helped with being (nearly) dead last, as it felt to me. The beginning was mainly through woodlands with the occasional clearing. Later on it became more open with fields and rolling hills. Hardly any road – a trail runner’s dream!

A trail runner’s dream!
– Photo courtesy of Justin Bateman. –

I saw the first person just before CP2, nearly 20km into the race. Somehow it gave me a sense of relief. I wasn’t all alone after all and I was definitely still on the correct route. I overtook a few more people shortly after and that spurred me on. Not that I ran any faster, but things started to feel easier. Sometime between CP2 and CP3 I caught up with Channari. We had a quick chat and she said that she was also struggling, which confirmed that entering this race was probably not the best idea we’ve ever had. She also said that Adam and Shaun were about 15-20min ahead. I figured I would see them at the finish line.

There were more people on the route now, what a relief to not be completely alone anymore. I ran with a guy called Simon for a stretch. He was also treating the race as a training run. The rain was gone and the sun had come out. It had warmed up considerably and was muggy. Apparently I missed a lot of things during the race. A giant dinosaur in someone’s back garden? A sign reading “Cows with calves may be aggressive.” when entering a field? However, I did not miss the absolutely huge Tudor-style country house we passed.

Chiltern Challenge - rolling hills

The route took us through a lot of corn fields and as a result we had to climb over a lot of stiles. I know some people hated the corn fields, because it was so hot running through them. True. The heat was literally steaming out of them, but I enjoyed it, because of the views they opened up. Stunning! They did remind me of the movie Signs… I was just waiting for something to jump out.

One of the many corn fields.
– Photo courtesy of Justin Bateman. –

After 30km I arrived at CP3 and there were Adam and Shaun! What?!? What happened? I wouldn’t know until later, as they ran off shortly after I arrived at the checkpoint and didn’t say much. I filled up my hydration pack and tried to eat some cocktail sausages. But again, similar to the last race, they immediately made me gag and I spat them out. I left the aid station not much after Adam and Shaun, and could see them in the distance ahead of me.

It was hot now. Very hot and very muggy. There were more hot corn fields to cross. More stiles to climb over. I caught up with a guy called Rob and we ran together for a long stretch. We didn’t really talk much,  but we didn’t need to. There was this mutual understanding that we were both struggling. The look on our respective faces said it all. I said to him: “I think it’s suck-it-up time.” He just nodded and on we soldiered. Of course I was hurting by now.

More corn fields!
– Photo courtesy of an unknown fellow competitor. –

I arrived at CP4, 42km in, and eventually caught up with Adam and Shaun. I had a quick chat with Adam. Shaun had slipped and fallen, and grazed his arm on a fence, but he was ok. The two stayed a little longer at the aid station. Quick fist pump and off I was again. There was a constant stream of people ahead of me now, which was great. I used them as targets to overtake and it really spurred me on, as I was counting down the last kilometers. I did not miss the “1km to go” sign half hidden in a corn field. Great! I decided to push the final kilometer a bit harder. Bad idea! As soon as I accelerated I felt very dizzy and light-headed. Not great! Luckily it passed fairly quickly and not long after I crossed the finish line in what felt like a very long 5:56:56.

The race did not start as expected, but I was happy with how I finished it off. I learnt that you’ve got to be patient during ultras. I also learnt that “tortoise-ing” in ultras pays off.

Once again, the race organisers put on a great race with an awesome route. It was well organised with a really personal atmosphere and a lot of camaraderie amongst the competitors. You can watch the race video here. The four of us were buzzing in the car on the way home, sharing our race experiences. High on endorphins? Fantastic! Bring on the next ultra!!

Adam, Shaun and myself at the finish line.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

Channari, Shaun, Adam & myself at the finish line.

Channari, Shaun, Adam & myself at the finish line.

  
Race stats:
Time: 5:56:56
Gender position: 7th
Overall position: 35th
 
Nutrition stats:
2 x Clif Bloks
2 x Gu energy gels
1 x 9Bar energy bar
~4l water/electrolytes
 
Other stats:
10,001 stiles climbed
 

 
 
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Round the Island

112km over two days around the Isle of Wight.

The Round the Island Ultra is a two day ultra along the coastal path of the Isle of Wight. The route basically hugs the coastline all along the perimeter of the island. So this is what we set out to conquer!

On Friday after work we travelled by bus, train, bus, ferry and van to the Isle of Wight. Arriving relatively late, we didn’t waste time to pitch our mattresses in the school hall, prepare all our race kit and grab a bite to eat at an Italian restaurant close by. There was a lot of banter going on between the six of us – Shaun, Channari, Philippe, Kristin, Adam and myself.

Day 1 – East Cowes to Brighstone, Isle of Wight

The route map of Day 1.

The route map of Day 1.

Luckily it wasn’t a crack-of-dawn race start the next morning. We got ready and as per usual, there was a lot of faffing with the race kit. After the race briefing we made our way to the chain ferry in West Cowes. The ferry took us from West Cowes to East Cowes across the river Medina, and as soon as the ramp of the ferry was lowered, the race started. The weather looked glorious and it promised to be a hot day. It was already very warm at 9am in the morning.

At the race briefing of Day 1 - Channari, Shaun, Philippe & Adam.

At the race briefing of Day 1 – Channari, Shaun, Philippe & Adam.

Philippe, Adam and I ran together. Adam and Philippe were happily chatting away for the first half an hour, talking about everything under the sun, as if they were on a Sunday stroll. What did the other competitors think?! I started feeling a lot of tension on my head within 2km of the race. It really worried me, as I couldn’t run with a migraine, but then I realized I had tied the strap of my cap far too tight. That was an easy problem to fix. Amateur mistake!

Fairly soon after the start, a group of ten of us established itself – two ladies and eight guys – running together all the way to the first checkpoint (CP1), around 15km into the race. We were very much towards the front of the race, so the other lady and I were the first two ladies. Most of the first leg of the race was through little towns and woody paths, and it was good to finally hit the coastline and run along the promenade. Moving swiftly through CP1, I continued with Adam and Philippe.

From now onwards, the race would take us along the coastline all the way to the finish line. Our little group reformed again, however, over the next 15km people slowly dropped off. By the time we hit the first major uphill, up to Culver, there were only a handful of us left. Unfortunately the battery of my Garmin watch died after 25km. Very annoying! It wasn’t fully charged in the morning. Another amateur mistake! It obviously became very frustrating over the rest of the race as I could no longer tell how much I had left to go.

Arriving at checkpoint 2.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

We arrived at CP2 near the town of Sandown around 30km into the race. It was hot now. Boiling. I refuelled quickly, filled up my hydration pack and continued with Adam. Philippe took more time at the checkpoint – you can read Philippe’s race report here. The route took us through Sandown and up high onto the cliffs. Up on the cliffs there was a welcoming breeze and absolutely stunning views across the Channel, which was now dotted with many yachts from the Round the Island yacht race – definitely the lesser known event happening on the island that weekend!

The Round the Island yacht race.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

The view of the Round the Island yacht race.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

The route had a lot more undulation now. Usually we would walk the steeper and longer uphills. For the first part of the race I was bouncing between first and second position amongst the ladies. The other lady and myself even hit CP3 at the same time, but then she slowly moved ahead of me and I did not see her again. There was not much I could do about it, and I needed to continue at my own pace.

Suddenly, we were going up some steps about 44km into the race, Adam stopped dead in his tracks and said: “Kat, you go. I can’t anymore.” A little wave of panic overcame me. What was going on?! Of course, I didn’t leave him. He just said that he felt very weak and I had noticed that he was slowing down more and more, but had put that down to general fatigue or the red wine the night before. I made him take an energy gel and we continued slowly. We had no idea whether it was due to the heat or too little fuelling or something else altogether. After a while it became apparent though that Adam needed to continue slowly for a while until he felt better. We decided that I should go ahead by myself. – I felt very conflicted about continuing by myself. In the end, however, we had made the right decision – the situation we would have frustrated both of us too much. Arriving at CP4, I asked the volunteers to look out for him and to make sure he refuels properly. Apparently they did, Adam told me afterwards.

The last 10km from CP4 to the finish felt never-ending. Yet another uphill. Yet another bend. Yet another cove. Not having a GPS watch made things worse. I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t know how long I had been running for. I didn’t know how many kilometers were left. And it was so hot out there. So hilly. So far. And so alone. I was very sore from the waist down. And to top it all off, my legs were covered in hives and itching from all the grass, nettles and shrubs we ran through. It was a long tough day and I just felt very exhausted.

Then I looked back and saw two people in the distance! Of course I wondered whether it’s one of the other women. After looking back a few more times I established that one of them was a lady in a white shirt. Immediately all these thoughts and voices started going off in my head….  “If she catches me, I won’t be able to hang on to her.”  “I won’t just roll over and let her take my spot.”  “I can’t run any faster anymore.”  “That voice in my head that says I can’t, is a stupid liar!” – I felt completely confused of what I actually believed myself capable of doing! It was very weird. Once I had finished the day, I realised that no woman finished shortly after me in a white running shirt. Had I been hallucinating?!

Stunning views during the race.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

When I finally saw the finish line flags and ran down the finishing chute, I felt very emotional. I welled up and had a lump in my throat. I could barely speak. I think race director Neil thought I was about to collapse. No no, that was not the case, but I was quite overwhelmed and so relieved that I had reached the finish line – 7:10:39 later.

I had something to drink and cooled off under a hose, and felt much better. Then Neil told me that I was the first lady to finish. I promptly corrected him and said that that cannot be right, as surely the other lady finished ahead of me. He assured me 2-3 times that I was the first one. (However, there was one lady that started an hour after me in the faster group who was still on the course and could be faster.) I am not sure how that happened! Somewhere between the last checkpoint and the finish I must have overtaken her, actually not noticing. Well, that was an instant boost!

Adam finished a little later in 7:37hrs – very exhausted, but somewhat recovered. I was very proud that he managed to fight through it and didn’t drop out, and so was he.

We spent the night in a cabin on a campsite right on the edge of the cliffs and had a stunning view across the Channel. There was a lovely atmosphere in the camp, while those who had already finished cheered on the competitors arriving. Again, I focused on recovery. Stretching, hydrating, food, massage, compression socks, early sleep.

The view from the campsite across the English Channel.

The view from the campsite across the English Channel.

line break

Day 2 – Brighstone to West Cowes, Isle of Wight

The route map of Day 2.

The route map of Day 2.

I would lie if I’d say I wasn’t nervous at the start of the second day. This race situation was new to me. The girl in first group had a 4min lead on me and I had an 8min gap to the girl in third, so not a bad position to be in. At the race briefing the race director pointed out the top three men and women, and the respective time gaps. He added that the close time gaps amongst the ladies will make for an interesting ladies’ race. Great, thanks for adding more pressure and attention.

At the start line on Day 2 – Shaun in a Super Girl outfit.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

Being in the top 3, I had to start in the later starting group together with the other two ladies in the top 3 and about a dozen men. 9am we were off and it was already warm. Adam and Shaun decided to run with me, which was just great. The first part of Day 2 took us along the cliff edge and up one of the major climbs of the day to the famous Needles – one of the main landmarks of the Isle of Wight. The views were simply stunning again.

View of the Needles in the distance.

View of the Needles in the distance.
– Photo courtesy of Philippe Polman. –

I was super quick through CP1. Shaun said afterwards: “F1 pit stop, hey Kat?” We left CP1 together with the girl in third and another guy. The five of us continued together for a while, but after a few kilometers we slowly pulled away from them until I eventually could not see her behind me anymore. Sometime between the first and second checkpoint Adam started to slow down again. He was ok, but wanted to continue at a slower pace. We agreed that that he would run at his pace and that I would go ahead with Shaun.

When Shaun and I arrived at CP2, everyone started clapping. It was lovely to be welcomed like that and great to see Kristen and Channari. I filled up my hydration pack with water and off I went again, trying to maintain my F1-style.

Approaching CP 2 on Day 2 with Shaun.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

We both started to struggle as we were heading to CP3, 34km into the race and there was not much talking happening anymore. I had the feeling I was running slower and slower with more and more walking in-between. I tried to eat a bit of energy bar, but it made me dry-heave. Eventually I managed to wash down a few bites with lots of water. I just wanted to sit down in the shade and not move anymore – a proper low!  What the hell was I doing out here?!? Not sure if Shaun felt better or worse, but neither of us said how we felt and there was no whining.

Shaun wanted to stay a bit longer at CP3, so I continued alone. There was nothing else I could do except put down my head and run. I had just less than 20km to go. Soon the route led out of the woodlands and onto the road for a bit, before heading into farmland. It was so hot now, that you could feel the heat radiating off the road and fields. It was so hot that even the tar had started to melt. Certain spots had become all soft and sticky, and tar was sticking to my shoes. So I ran on the white line instead!

I was in and out of CP4. I didn’t really need anything. I had enough water and my stomach was not too happy anyway. I tried to eat a bit of sausage, but was just chewing around on it for a few minutes, I just couldn’t get it down. In the end I spat it out. I had a gel instead, which was easier to stomach at this stage.

During the latter stages of the race I wondered a few times if I managed to gap the girl in first? Did I make up more than 4min? I would only know after I had finished.

With around 4km to go I caught up with another competitor, Mike from Guildford, and we ran the last stretch together. It was good to talk a bit, be distracted from the pain. We hit the West Cowe’s promenade, trying to increase the pace a bit, knowing it to be the final stretch – but my aching body struggled to comply with my mind telling it to run faster. Up some steps, around a few corners and then the finish line was finally in sight. What a joy – and relief – to finally finish! Now the waiting began, but when the lady in first place did not cross the finish line within 5min, I knew I had won!

At the finish line!
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

Adam was still on the road and our friends had not yet arrived either, so it was a bit of an anti-climax as I had to celebrate on my own. And to be honest, it did take a few days to sink in that I had won my first ultra-marathon!

Once Adam and our friends had arrived, we popped open the champagne and celebrated, although we were all very exhausted. It was a great experience and I learnt that you definitely have to be patient during ultras. The race was so well organised and the atmosphere amongst everyone was second to none – very friendly and relaxed.

Race Stats
Day 1:
Time: 07:10:39
Gender position: 2nd
Overall position: 9th
 
Day 2:
Time: 05:56:49
Gender position: 1st
Overall position: 6th
 
Overall:
Time: 13:07:28
Gender position: 1st
Overall position: 6th
 

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The Pilgrim Challenge

106km over two days.

My journey to the start line of the Pilgrim Challenge actually started more than a year ago, at the end of 2012, wanting to participate in February 2013. Due to injury, however, I had to miss that one and hope for February 2014. After overcoming my back injury and having successfully completed the New York Marathon in November 2013, I felt up to the challenge of 106km over two days. A few of our friends signed up too, a guarantee for an exciting and fun race weekend. This also made training easier, as we would head out to the beautiful Surrey hills every so often to train on the North Downs Way.

The route of the race follows part of the original route pilgrims used to travel from Farnham to Canterbury, passing numerous old churches on the way. It is a beautiful route with some stunning views across rolling hills and the English countryside.

Day 1: 53km – Farnham to Merstham

Early morning we took the train from London to the start in Farnham, South East England, me wearing my usual four layers in a vain attempt to fend off the cold. The cold, however, could not dampen my excitement, and a little nervousness. We registered, dropped our bags off, attended the race briefing and then it was already time to make our way to the start line.

Adam and our friend Shaun dashed off at the sound of the start gun and I was off on my own. The ankle-deep mud started after the first kilometer – muddy ploughed fields, muddy grassy fields, muddy forest paths, muddy ….

After 13km we got to Guildford and had to wade through a knee-deep little stream. On the other side there were two people waiting and it took me a moment to realise it was our friends Katy and Malcolm. What a surprise! I was happy and so excited to see them. I had only expected them in another 12km. Katy even played the sound of a vuvuzela on her phone for me, which Dora, Adam’s sister, had sent her! Malcolm was meant to race himself, however, due to a bicycle accident ten days before he had to divert his fitness to being an A-grade supporter.

Me crossing the stream.

Crossing the river by Guildford.

Shortly after, I reached the first checkpoint (CP1). I made it very quick – some water, number ticked off by marshal, off again. Due to my quick progress through the checkpoint I managed to overtake a group of girls, always encouraging in a race situation. The route took us up to St Martha’s Church – a very cute little stone church on top of a hill with some beautiful views of the surrounding rolling hills. At that point another competitor, Darren, caught up with me and we ploughed on together for a while, as he was unsure of the route.

St Martha's Church

St Martha’s Church on the ridge.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

St Martha's Church

St Martha’s Church
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

We hit Newlands Corner at 20km and pushed towards the next checkpoint at Ranmore Common, a flattish stretch of around 12km. Darren was setting a very good pace. Not too slow, but also not too fast, so that I was just able to hang on. He was very metronomic and chose good lines through the mud and puddles, making it easy for me to just follow his footsteps and switch off for a while. We didn’t talk much and got on with running, gaining some ground. I started getting tired though and caught myself thinking a few times that I wish I could just walk for a bit. Just for a little bit. Just a few steps. But I really didn’t want to lose my “pacer” and besides that, I could unfortunately not find a good reason why I should walk, except that I felt tired and was running at a pace slightly outside my comfort zone.

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Fellow competitor Darren and me.

At Ranmore Common we reached CP2 and from far away I could already hear our friends cheering me on – Malcolm and Katy who had been joined by Philippe, Kristin and Ryan. It was so awesome and gave me an instant boost. I refilled my hydration pack, grabbed a couple of energy bars and took out a few cabanossi from my pack. My friends told me that they believed I was currently second or third lady. Wow! I did not expect that, but I also knew that the elite ladies were lurking somewhere behind me, having started an hour after us. It still really spurred me on. While refuelling, Darren told my friends that he called me “Kat-Nav”, as I knew the route so well.

Refuelling at Ranmore Common, CP2

Refuelling at Ranmore Common, checkpoint 2.

Darren and I continued together down the hill, past Denbies vineyards and to the bottom of Box Hill. Unfortunately we could not cross the river at the usual place – the bridge or the Stepping Stones – as it was completely flooded from the rains. Many competitors were stranded. Luckily, bringing honour to my new nickname, I knew a diversion from training out there so often and I ended up leading around 15 people up Box Hill on the diversion route.

Denbies Wine Estate

I was quite annoyed with losing time and energy on the diversion, and now about 36km into Day 1, I also started to hurt. I had lost Darren in the whole confusion over the diversion, which was a shame. Added to that, another girl overtook me which annoyed me massively. Needless to say, my mind was not in a great place at that point. My thoughts wandered to Adam and I wondered how he managed the flooding of the bridge and the diversion? But there was nothing else I could do except put one foot in front of the other until I reached the finish line.

Pilgrim Challenge

– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

The next 10km were very muddy and slippery, a rather taxing endeavour. Having to continuously right yourself in the mud was very exhausting, to say the least. Although there was only one longer uphill left, the route constantly had little sharp bumps, which meant lots of walking. Even walking with hands on knees. Together with the mud, it really sapped your energy. It was relentless. When I arrived at CP4, about 5km from the finish, I was really in a spot of bother. When I saw my friends, whom I did not expect to see here, I nearly started sobbing. I just wanted to be at the finish line now. Everything was hurting from the waist down. Every. Step. Hurt. Philippe ran a short stretch with me and tried to encourage me by telling me that I only had three miles left. Three miles sounded so far at that point! I didn’t even stop at the checkpoint. I just shouted out my number to have it ticked off by the marshal and continued. In the last 2km I was overtaken by another girl, which was very frustrating, but there was nothing I could do. She was moving so much faster than me and there was no point in even trying to hang on.

Finally, after 6:11:59 hours I crossed the finish line! In eighth position (eighth lady)! I was exhausted and very sore. Everything from the waist down hurt and my muscles were pretty stiff. I could only hobble around as I was getting changed and cleaned up. Luckily I had no blisters or chaffing. I did wonder how I was supposed to run the same distance again tomorrow?! Quite a worrying thought. So I put my remaining energy into recovering as much as possible: I stretched. I put Arnica oil on my legs. I had a short 15 minute massage. I put compression socks on. I made sure I rehydrated properly. And then a good dinner with our friends, who had supported us the whole day, talking about the day’s events. In hindsight I probably didn’t fuel myself enough in the latter stages of the race and therefore struggled so much in the last 10km.

Adam finished Day 1 in 5:47:50 and Shaun in 7:00:10.

At the finish line of Day 1.

At the finish line of Day 1.

All competitors slept the night in a big school hall. It was a very amicable atmosphere, with many people talking about their experience of the first race day. The night was rather restless – sleeping with a sore body on a thin mattress on a wooden floor does not make for the best post-race recovery. Luckily I had taken ear plugs along, so I could not hear the snoring from the other competitors.

Day 2: 53km – Merstham to Farnham

Picture a school hall full of people – “the walking dead”. People were groaning, moaning and shuffling. Not much was said, but nevertheless there was excitement in the air.

My shoes were still wet from the day before, but at least I managed to find them amongst the hundreds of wet, smelly, identical-looking mud covered shoes! To my surprise, my legs had recovered to some extent, and I actually felt better than expected. Adam had decided to run the second day with me, which I was very happy about. Even though we generally don’t talk much, keeping each other company has a very supportive effect. Besides Shaun, we were also joined by Channari, Shaun’s fiancée, who would be running her first ultra.

My aim for Day 2 was to hold on to my top ten position, to run relaxed and finish strong. Just before CP1 the girl in fourth position overtook me. We reached CP1 and I didn’t stop at all. I didn’t really need anything, but I had also hoped I would be able to gain some time on the other girl, as she did stop. Unfortunately that didn’t work out: on the next longer uphill she overtook me again and I never saw her again. Fair play to her.

When I got to CP2 by Ranmore Common there was another lady, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. We ended up leap-frogging each other for the next 18km, which was frustrating and exhausting, and especially emotionally draining. She was faster on the uphills and I was faster on the downhills. She also kept stopping to faff with her backpack and took much longer at the checkpoints, whereas I moved through them very swiftly. I knew she was placed somewhere lower down in the rankings, but I didn’t know how much time I had on her, so didn’t want to give her any time.

After 30km we got to Newlands Corner. As we emerged from the forest and hit the clearing, we saw our friends Philippe, Kristin and Ryan. Amazing friends! We did not expect anyone coming to support us and this was an immediate energy booster. They were spray painting a big graffiti canvass, while enjoying a day out in the winter sun.

The view from Newlands Corner.

The view from Newlands Corner.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

When we came to the river by Guildford, Malcolm was waiting there for us. Another great surprise! He told us that the river was flooded and we had to take another detour. Even the diversion took us through shin-deep water, but I managed to create a little gap on the other girl. Then we had to run around some houses and corners, and I said to Adam we should run this stretch a bit quicker, so she can’t see us anymore. Hopefully that would discourage her and would I drop her, à la cross country tactics. That seemed to do the trick and the next time I saw her behind me in the distance, I finally had a decent gap on her.

Pilgrim Challenge - Guildford forest

– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

As we arrived at the last checkpoint, CP4, the marshal exclaimed “Bloody hell, second woman!” when he saw me. I wasn’t sure whether I heard right, so I asked “Sorry, what?” He said to me “I think you are second or third lady.” I knew that meant I was fifth or sixth overall, as three elite ladies started an hour after us. Newly energised by this information I did not waste much time, had a cup of energy drink and ran on.

Of course, the pain and tiredness also set in on Day 2, and now, 8km before the finish, it was considerable. Both Adam and I were struggling and there wasn’t much talking going on. Every little incline felt like a mountain, and there wasn’t much running up those anymore. At least my fuelling strategy was much better than on Day 1. Adam kept reminding me to eat something. I barely stopped at the checkpoints, if at all, in order to save time and Adam picked up some food for me instead. When we ran through the village of Puttenham, our friend Katy was waiting for us there, cheering us on. What a lovely surprise! Again, we did not expect her to come out and support us on the second day. It gave us the much needed lift for the final stretch.

Adam and I pushed on and from time to time Adam would turn around to see if anyone was coming up from behind. With about 2km left Adam checked again and as he turned around, I could see it in his face. He just said “Come on Kat, we need to move.” I turned back to see one of the other ladies not too far away across a muddy field. This horrible feeling of panic and distress instantaneously overcame my whole body and shot all the way to my knees. My brain froze and I could not think straight. My heart sunk. It made me feel sick. But one thing was clear: I was not going to lose my position so close to the finish! I muttered something irrational, incomprehensible to Adam, when he reminded me that it could be one of the elite ladies, who started an hour after us. I turned back again to check and thought I recognised one of the elite ladies. I was somewhat relieved, but still anxious, and decided that I would not take that chance, so I pushed on harder.

Almost not feeling my legs anymore, just pain, and an unbelievable desire to maintain my position, I hit the road hard for the last 1.5km. I did not let anyone overtake me. And so Adam and I crossed the finish line in 6:27:40. I finished as the fifth lady overall, in a total time of 12:39:39. I was overjoyed with my result. I did not expect a top five finish in my first multiday ultra.

Together with our amazing support team we had a celebratory glass of champagne at the finish line.

At the finish line - Katy, Adam, me, Philippe, Chris, Malcolm.

Drinking champagne at the finish line – Katy, Adam, me, Philippe, Chris & Malcolm.
– Photo courtesy of XNRG. –

 
Race stats:
Day 1:
Time: 6:11:59
Gender position: 8th
Overall position: 57th
 
Day 2:
Time: 6:27:40
Gender position: 5th
Overall position: 33rd
 
Overall:
Time: 12:39:39
Gender position: 5th
Overall position: 32nd
  

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New York City Marathon

New York is just such a wicked city. Loved it the first time. Loved it the second time. Still loved it the third time around.

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My New York City Marathon (NYCM) quest started in 2012, by me running the Brooklyn Half Marathon and qualifying for the NYCM. I geared up my training and was ready to roll in November 2012, when Super Storm Sandy rolled in and caused havoc. The NYCM was cancelled, but we were given the option to transfer our entries to 2013.

It was touch and go to get myself ready and fit enough for the start line. For one there was my back injury which had been plaguing me for most of the year and then three weeks before the marathon my right foot decided to play up in some form of plantar fasciitis or something similar. As a result I was barely able to train for the last three weeks. There was a lot of toing and froing going on in my head whether to race at all or not. In the end I decided to race – just do it for the experience, the adventure, the fun.

Registration was on Friday and already the atmosphere was buzzing and infectious. I enjoyed strolling around, looking at all things running. It required quite a lot of self-restraint not to buy too many things I don’t need. On Saturday afternoon I prepared my race outfit and careful thought had to be put into what to wear. I knew it would be very cold in the morning, but I also didn’t want to wear too many layers and then be too warm during the race.

My race number

My race number

Early morning before the start.

Early morning before the start.

Race day – a very early start. The alarm rang at 4.15am. I made my way to the bus in Midtown Manhattan, transporting all runners to the start on Staten Island. Arriving on Staten Island, we got searched and our bags were checked by security. And then the long wait started. 3.5 hours to my wave start! Many of us sat down in a large tent and it was absolutely freezing. At one point I got some hot water at the stalls in the starting village to warm up a bit, but my hands were shaking so much that I spilt a lot of the hot water! Thoughts started creeping into my head, such as how was I supposed to run a marathon in my current state? At least the long wait gave me plenty of time to eat and I had more than usually before a race – a cup of porridge, a cinnamon bagel and Clif Bar energy bar. To pass time I chatted to some of the other runners – from Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa… – the atmosphere was very amicable in the tent.

Finally, after waiting for around for 3.5 hours we were queuing up at the start line on the Verrazano Bridge. The atmosphere appeared relaxed; people were chatting to each other and it seemed that everyone felt excited to finally get going. Only now did I shed my last layer, a thin running jacket and left it in the bin bags provided. All these clothes would go to charity – what a great idea!

The race started immediately across the Verrazano Bridge. Wow! The views to the left across the Upper Bay and Manhattan Island in the distance were just stunning. I tried to soak it all in and just enjoy being here, while slowly finding my running rhythm. Due to me being half frozen during the long wait it took my toes almost two miles to thaw out – it made for a very awkward feeling when running and I was glad when they eventually defrosted. Once warmed up, the pain from the tendinitis also eased off.

After three miles we headed into Brooklyn and the further we ran into Brooklyn, the more the crowds increased. Spectators were watching, cheering on anyone and everyone. Many held up placards with motivational quotes or with names of their family and friends. Once deep into Brooklyn, the atmosphere was simply insane! Sometimes we runners ran through a constant wall of noise. People screaming and shouting, cheering us on. Amazing! There were loads of bands on the side of the road playing music. The local church opened its doors and blasted out music. People were holding up flags for different countries. Others were handing out water. Others still were handing out tissues. It felt like a giant, massive street carnival!

I was meant to see Adam for the first time at the six mile mark, but unfortunately we missed each other. I was on the wrong side of the road and there were just so many people running as well as watching, that we just didn’t see each other. It was the first time ever that we missed each other at a viewing point and I could feel myself getting upset. But realising that won’t help me much, I was rather looking forward, hoping to see him at the next agreed viewpoint and focus on my race instead.

The runners snaked their way through Brooklyn and through one of the neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, Williamsburg, the Jewish quarter, where the atmosphere was a lot quieter, almost a bit subdued. We saw the odd cluster of people standing on the side of the road, dressed in their traditional attire, watching silently. No bands, no cheering crowds.

From Williamsburg we continued across the Pulaski Bridge into the roaring crowds of Queens. Spectators on megaphones were welcoming us to the borough. Throngs and throngs of people, all cheering us on. Back into the madness! It was crazy. It was amazing! Shortly after the bridge I saw Adam for the first time. I gave him a quick high-five and ran on.  The crowds and seeing Adam really lifted my spirits. He also had the vuvuzela with him, which was just brilliant as I heard him before I actually saw him.

NYCM

Around this time my pace started to slow a bit. At first I got a bit upset and frustrated about it. But then I heard my friend Lauren’s voice in my head, telling me, as she did before the race, that I am here to enjoy the race and the atmosphere, and not run for a specific time. I could see Lauren getting upset with me for getting upset. That really helped. I snapped out of it and enjoyed the race for what it was.

Then came Queensboro Bridge. People had warned me of that bridge and I can see why. There were no cheering crowds lining the sides. It was a long steady uphill and it seemed to go on forever. I just tried to focus on my running form to occupy my mind. Most people just ran in silence and it was ominously quiet, except the noise of footsteps. Eventually you could hear the cheering crowds of Manhattan getting louder and louder. I was more than ready to get off the bridge and back into the madness!

And madness it was. People were lining the streets four, five rows deep. Cheering, shouting, singing, whistling. A huge spectacle. I saw a runner dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. Another guy was dribbling two basketballs while running! One guy had written on his shirt “Today all of us are Kenyans”. I also saw a few people in South African colours or running with a SA flag.  At some point I turned back and it was just a sea of people, running. Amazing!

I saw Adam after about 30km into the race, around 110th East. It was nice to see him again, especially now that I had started hurting a bit. I gave him a quick kiss and ran on, my spirits lifted again.

After 30km

After 30km

We made our way through the Bronx and back into Manhattan. There was quite a decent incline up 5th Avenue leading up to Central Park, not to be underestimated. The sides of the road were again absolutely packed with people. The cheering was so loud that you could almost not hear your own breathing. Running into Central Park was a great feeling. This was the home stretch now and I was familiar with the last few kilometres from my run around Central Park the previous year. The last kilometers I tried to push the pace a bit and crossed the finish line after an amazing 3:56:25.

We all got silver blankets and ponchos to keep us warm, as it was a long, long walk back to the meeting points, where Adam was waiting to embrace me. During that time, I felt a bit empty. Now it was all over. And now? What’s all the big fuss about? What’s next? It was weird and I was a bit surprised and felt confused myself.

It was wonderful to finally see Adam! When I told him how I felt, he told me off, and rightly so. I mean, I just finished a marathon after all the ups and downs I had during the year and I could be very happy and grateful for being able to run a marathon and finish in one piece! It took a few more days for the experience to fully sink in and I was really pleased with my first marathon.

                  

Race stats:
  • 61% male runners and 39% female runners
  • 106 official clocks on the course
  • 2.3 million paper cups handed out by volunteers along the route
  • consumption during the race: 93,600 bottles of water; 55,000 cups of coffee; 6,800 liters of energy drinks
  • 135+ bands and entertainment acts
  • 8000+ event volunteers
  • 2 million spectators cheering on the runners
  • 50,266 finishers – record number of finishers

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Recounts of an Epic Adventure

My Matterhorn Ultraks Race Report

I usually don’t write blogs or race reports, but I reckon this race deserves one.

One word. Epic! It was truly epic!! But let me set straight any misconceptions you may have, and that I had before the race. This race should be advertised as an “ultra-hike” interspersed with some running and not the other way around. There was about 48% uphill, 48% downhill and, at most, 4% flat.

Ultraks Matterhorn course profile

Matterhorn Ultraks course profile

The drive from Basel to Zermatt was gorgeous with some stunning scenery, and gave us a taste of what was to come. We arrived in Zermatt about Friday lunch time. Our hotel was right in the centre of Zermatt, a stone’s throw from the race registration and the start line. Brilliant!

After getting something to eat and registering for the race, we went on a mission to get some more kit. A waterproof jacket for me and new trail shoes for Mike and myself – against all conventional wisdom not to race in new kit. Eventually we both found what we needed and I was very happy with my choice of trail shoes – Asics. In the evening we packed our race backpacks, got all the kit ready and went to sleep early. I got a good night’s sleep, which is somewhat unusual for me before a race. In the morning we had some porridge with salted nuts (an accident, trust me!), a little espresso and rolled out of our hotel room 20 minutes before the start.

There was a lively atmosphere at the start and somehow some of the elites managed to brush past right in front of me!! How exciting!!! I recognised Philipp Reiter and Cameron Clayton, but there were more. I felt quite intimidated seeing all these lean, fit people around me, and especially started to question my set-up with a backpack and trekking poles. Others seemed to go very light without trekking poles, but now was not the time to make changes.

Before the race start.

Before the race start.

The start gun went and after around 300 metres we started climbing. After about ten minutes we hit a forest with an increased gradient and everyone started walking. And this was going to be the theme of the day – walking/hiking the uphills. After going through the forest for a while, we hit a clearing and got our first full view of the Matterhorn at sunrise. Absolutely stunning! I felt very content in that moment and said to myself that if I had to drop out of the race now, for whatever reason, I would still be happy as I was able to see such stunning views.

Matterhorn in the early morning sun.

Matterhorn in the early morning sun.

Adam had dashed off at the start of the forest, bloody mountain goat! But Mike was still with me. We hit the first feed station, Sunnegga (at 6km and 2,288m high – see course profile below), after just over an hour. It made me happy, as I felt the first stage was conquered, although we had hardly made a dent in the mileage. I had a gel and some water and we pushed on. After a short downhill, we hit THE MOUNTAIN, the longest, steepest and highest climb of the day, Gornergrat, topping out at 3,089m high (at 14km).

The theme of the day returned. I got my trekking poles out and hiked. I was very glad I took along the trekking poles. Everyone around me was hiking and I wondered if Adam, somewhere way ahead of me, was hiking too? There was a lot of time to think and I wondered once or twice whether I would be able to finish the race. To pass time I started talking to some of the other competitors in English, French or German. There was Olivier, a kind French guy, and there was Claudio, a friendly Italian and we chatted for a bit. There was also a Grumpy German guy, who didn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much.

The last push to the ridge was so steep that you could almost use your hands to scramble up. After nearly three hours we hit the Gornergrat ridge and the most magnificent view of the Gornergrat glacier opened in front of our eyes. I had no idea we would get to see this panorama. I felt very blessed and privileged to see this and it made it worth the hard work. It was the highest point I’ve been in my life. Not sure why I chose to do it as part of a race?!

Gornergrat Glacier

Mike took a quick picture of us and we continued to the top, where Anna was waiting for us. She had made her way up there with the ski lifts to support us. It was great to see her and I had been looking forward to it. It gave me a real boost. She also told me that Adam passed 30 minutes ago – admittedly less of a boost, but I was very happy for him. It also confirmed that we had made the right decision to each run our own race.

Descent from Gornergrat Glacier

Descent from Gornergrat Glacier

We didn’t hang around for long and started the descent, around 35 minutes of downhill running! You had to watch your step all the time, as some parts were quite technical. Both Mike and I agreed that we had made the right decision getting new trail shoes the day before. From further above we could see the next feed station, Riffelalp (at 19km and 2,222m high), and heard a band playing music. Very cool! At the station we stocked up properly with cake, Clif Bloks, coke and isotonic drinks. I also filled up my hydration system – only half a litre down. Not good! Definitely need to drink more.

After about five minutes we continued, but running felt very difficult. Not sure whether it was from the long downhill or eating and drinking too much at the aid station, but Mike and I both felt a bit queasy, so we decided to walk for a bit. I felt bad for walking, it was a race after all, but then I saw others walking and that made me feel a little better. Slowly the first dark thoughts crept into my mind and I started worrying about the intermediate cut-off point at 32km, which we had to pass by 3pm, eight hours into the race. I made some wild and extensive calculations in my head, which kept me busy for a good few minutes. The conclusion was that we should be absolutely fine for the cut-off. Mike agreed. That gave me a bit of a boost. I also said to Mike that I was happy not being completely on my own out here and being able to run with him, and he felt the same.

I made my first pee stop after around four hours. The output was not good, too little and too dark. It scared me a bit and I made a mental note to concentrate more on drinking enough, the result of which I will come to later. I tried to eat an energy bar, but after half a bar I gave up. It was not very palatable and just not going down very well at all. We continued our descent to the next little village, crossed a massive suspension bridge (very scary! and we were not allowed to run across it) and then started the next climb up to Schwarzsee (at 28km and 2,552m high).

Suspension bridge we had to cross.

Suspension bridge we had to cross.

The climb started out through a forest again. At one point we passed a little stream and there was a bucket filled with beers standing in the stream just next to the path! I thought I was hallucinating, but Mike had seen it too. It made me smile and I knew Adam would have been very tempted. In this forest I also saw four big mushrooms next to the path and made a mental note to ask Adam whether he saw them too. He did! I enjoyed the climb up to Schwarzsee (as much as one can enjoy going up a steep mountain with hardly any oxygen!). The gradient wasn’t too steep. I got into a nice rhythm and was able to maintain a good pace, although my calves were killing me! I even managed to overtake a few men, including the Grumpy German, which really spurt me on.

It was very windy and cold at the top of Schwarzsee. Anna was waiting at the top and it was nice to see her again. She was very positive and said that we were looking good. I just hoped she was honest. Anna said that I was closing in on a Japanese Lady. I didn’t know who or what she meant, but it gave me some motivation! Nothing like a bit of competition, but as a friend said to me: steady wins the race. Anna also told us that Adam came through 50 minutes before us. Bloody mountain goat! I thought to myself again with a smile.

I tried to make my stop at the feeding station as quick as possible. Clif Blok, gel, coke, a bit of cake and refilling of hydration system. Done! We said goodbye to Anna and started the descent, when Mike realised he forgot to fill up his hydration system. He went back to fill it up and we agreed that he would catch up with me on the descent. He is a very good downhill runner. However, Mike started struggling with his calves. I could see him coming down the mountain above behind me, but eventually I could not see him anymore and we were each left to our own devices.

Shortly after I reached the valley bottom, I passed the cut-off point at Stafel (at 32km) with plenty of time to spare. Relief! But it also meant that the final major ascent of the race dawned on me. I was a bit sick of uphills to be honest and this one was horrible. Steep and stony and lots of zig-zagging. I could see other competitors high above me, including the Japanese Lady. Sometimes she seemed very close, sometimes very far – very frustrating. I just said to myself again: steady wins the race. You could also see the clouds drawing in and the rain was not far away; the weather report had forecast just this. I was half way up the climb when some proper lightning and thunder hit. The lightning scared me a bit here on this exposed mountainside and I said a quick prayer that nothing would happen to Adam, Mike and any of the other competitors. Before long it started raining. I put my waterproof jacket on and soldiered on.

The Grumpy German had caught up with me while I was putting on my jacket and said to me that he is sick of it. He really didn’t look happy. I also started questioning why I was doing this. I was going up a steep, stony uphill which seemed never ending. The next feed station was nowhere in sight. It was raining in my face and I was getting soaked. My hands were freezing around my trekking poles. But then I realised why. It’s meant to be a challenge, and that is exactly why I am doing it! And then I saw the rain as just another challenge. In a strange way I embraced it, because it made it more challenging.

This thought really gave me energy. I overtook and dropped the Grumpy German and soon I could see the Japanese Lady ahead of me. I overtook her, dropped her, and I overtook another couple of men too. Amazing! It felt like I was on fire! We ran along the ridge for a while and the next feeding station was still nowhere in sight. Extremely frustrating. I really wanted some food. Not for the first time today I was very irritated with myself for not making more notes on the course and the distance between aid stations. Luckily, the profile of the course was printed on our bib numbers. Genius idea! Quite a few times I looked down onto my bib to see roughly where I was and how much more to go.

I knew Adam would be worried about me in the rain and the cold, and I considered sending him a message to tell him that I am fine, but that would have been too much of a faff in the rain, so I sent him some thoughts that I am fine. A good few times I thought I heard steps behind me, just to turn around and see an empty trail behind me. Was I hearing things? Was I hallucinating? I was convinced someone was right behind me, ready to overtake me. Maybe it was the raindrops hitting the hood of my waterproof jacket.

We ran along the ridge for a while and down below I could see Zermatt. Another beautiful view with the clouds hanging over it. The trail had turned into a little river and there was really very little point in trying to keep dry shoes. I hopped and jumped alongside the trail and between puddles, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered anymore. But where was that bloody aid station? I really started to wonder. Also, about this time, roughly eight hours into the race, my Garmin watch died. I knew they generally only last about eight hours, so wasn’t entirely surprised, but still not great timing.

View of Zermatt in the valley below.

Eventually we started the downhill and at the bottom I could see the final aid station, Trift (at 40km and 2,337m high). Finally! To be honest, I thought the feeding station was supposed to be at the top of the ascent and not the bottom. The descent was tricky – steep, stony and the rain had made it a very muddy, slippery trail. A good few times I had to talk to myself and reprimand myself to pay attention and to take it easy. At last I hit the feeding station, totally buzzing. I was on a complete high. Maybe it was all the sugar and caffeine from the gels? Or the endorphins? The staff looked at me with big eyes in complete astonishment and surprise. I guess it was pouring down and cold, but I didn’t really notice it much. I was just very excited and happy to have managed so far and now it was only 6km to go. I knew I would manage that and I would be close to the time I had hoped for.

I made the last aid station another quick pit stop. Stored away my trekking poles. Clif Blok. Coke. A little bit of bouillon. Done! The staff clapped me out of the station, which was very kind and I really appreciated the gesture. Just after the aid station we hit the final ascent of the day, only about 1.5km up, and then final long descent to the finish line. Shortly after the aid station I needed to pee again. Now with hardly anyone around, it was an easy process – lots in quantity, very clear. Good stuff. So all the drinking paid off.

By now the trail had turned into a complete mud bath. It almost felt like mud bogging. I had to think of Sam and Felicity and wondered whether this is how it felt like when they took part at the Tough Mudder? I had to be really careful on the downhill not slip and slide down the hillside. Again I talked to myself – reprimanded myself to pay attention and be careful. And again, I was very grateful I bought new trail shoes the day before. It would have been a complete disaster without them.

I passed the ‘4km to go banner’ and I whooped. Happy days! Not long to go – I can do that! At one point I wasn’t sure whether I am still on the right trail. Then I saw all the shoe prints in the mud and knew I was right. I had to think of my dad and how he taught us to look out for car, foot or animal prints if we were lost. I was surprised with myself at how clear my thoughts were at times. I also needed to pee again. Weird, but ok. Same result as before. Good.

I passed the ‘2km to go’ banner and whooped again. Now it was really not long anymore and I was getting very excited to hit the finishing straight. And, I needed to pee again. Same result as before. This was very unusual for me. Now I started getting worried. Was I maybe overhydrated? I didn’t even know what the symptoms of over-hydration were. I had to almost laugh at my own thoughts, but was still worried about it. I decided I would go to the medical tent at the finishing line to just make sure I am ok. Of course, I didn’t go and of course, I was absolutely fine. Interesting how your thoughts can go on very strange loops when you are out running for so long.

I passed the ‘1km to go’ banner and this time there was only a very soft whoop. I was myself surprised at how quickly my mood changed from elation towards gloom. The trail started levelling out, but I started feeling very exhausted and sore. My quads were absolutely killing me from all the downhill and I just wanted to be at the finish line now. There were a few bumps in the last kilometre and they felt like mountains. I also started thinking about how I looked and if my hair looked ok. Then I laughed at myself. How silly! I ran nine plus hours, some of it in the rain, who cares how I looked?! I saw a snail crossing the path and I jumped over it. Funny I thought – me snail, passing a snail.

The trail turned into road and the first houses started appearing. Soon I turned into the main road and onto the finishing straight. Spectators were clapping and it felt very special. I was beaming. Even my finishing picture showed that. I crossed the finish line in 09:31:43. I was incredibly happy to finish this race, it is hard to describe.  It had been a dream of mine and it felt very rewarding after all the issues with my back this year. Yes, it was not amazingly fast, but that doesn’t matter to me. I wasn’t the last lady and I finished well within the cut-off time. Adam had finished in 8:24hrs and Mike in 9:53hrs.

Adam and Anna were  waiting for me at the finish line and I jumped into Adam’s  arms. Both very happy. Both unable to walk properly for three days. An incredible race. An amazing experience. An unforgettable adventure. One which I will treasure for a long time.

On the finishing straight.

On the finishing straight.

Ultraks finish line

Ultraks finish line!
– Photo courtesy of Eric Lamugniere. –

Race stats:
  • distance: 46km
  • 3,600m ascending
  • 3,600m descending
  • 3,100m altitude – Gornergrat (highest point)
  • 240 male competitors, 207 finishers (13.7% dropout rate)
  • 45 female competitors, 41 finishers (8.8% dropout rate)
  • 1st male finisher time: 04:43:05
  • 1st female finisher time: 05:41:16
Race stats:
  • 4 GU gels with caffeine
  • 5 Clif Bloks with caffeine
  • 1/2 Clif Bar
  • some cake
  • 4-5 cups of coke
  • isotonic drink
  • some water

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