UTMB count down

Beep! Beep! Beep! It’s 4:15am on a Monday morning! I’m off to London for my last altitude training session before the UTMB.

I’m happy with my training. I’ve learnt from last year’s DNF experience and although I know what I can do to improve my performance I also know that what I did manage was the maximum I can fit into my lifestyle of being a working-mum-ultra runner. I run ultras because it makes me happy. Yes for some strange reason inflicting pain, pushing my body to the limit sounds like fun! My aim is to enjoy my races not win them. Now I know that a lot of you might disagree with me but you need to choose your playing field wisely and set your goals accordingly. I’ve done a lot of ultras over the last three years but I’m still a novice in the ultra world and still needs to learn a lot but that’s the beauty of ultra running. It’s a discovery of your sole and being! If you asked me a few years ago what type of ultra runner I am I would have stared at you in confusion like a toddler. However, I now know more or less know what type of ultra runner I am. I know what I like and don’t like! Well at least for now, until I change my mind again!

Sometimes you just have to do a race for pride, ego or just to prove a point whereas other races lie close to your heart. So the UTMB is my ego race! After doing my first ultra in 2012 I saw the UTMB on Facebook and thought “it would be so cool to say I’ve run from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France”. I was so naive that the fact that I’ve only done one ultra and has never even run a 100 miles wasn’t even bothering me. Like a toddler I wanted it and no one was going to convince me otherwise. I trained, did all the qualifying races and lined up for last year’s UTMB. At the start line I knew my chances was 50/50 but what was the worse that can happen?

I got timed out and I could give a lot of excuses but the reality was that I had no idea what I was letting myself into. I live in a area where speed humps are seen as mini mountains and if I find a hill that last longer than 30 seconds I was happy. My world is a million miles away from the near half marathon uphills of the UTMB. DNF made me stronger! I leant so much. It showed my where my weaknesses were. To become a better runner you need bad runs. You learn more from a bad run than from a good one. DNF is not something to be ashamed about. It’s a learning curve. It shows that we are human and not the super being which we create in our mind! Living a life with “oh well” is much better than a life of “what if”.

So this year I’ve improved my 50/50 chance! It’s still not 100% but my chances of survival is better. I’m less nervous and my race plan is a lot less complicated. No more spreadsheets only running. One foot in front of the other and belief that I can do it. I know that I will need to go through the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual roller coaster, but that’s ultra running! I know how scared I was last year climbing up a mountain, somewhere, just following markers. I remember the thoughts and mental images as if it was yesterday and that’s a good thing!

So with my equipment carefully selected, weighed, dry bagged and packed I’m ready to face the magnificent Mont Blanc once again!
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In search of the summit

Rain drops softy run down my arms as I glared at the descending clouds covering Mont Blanc in a blanket of clouds with Conquest of Paradise blasting out over the loud speakers. Two years of sweating, crying, victories and dreaming brought me to the thing I want most, running the UTMB (The North Face Ultra trail du Mont Blanc). Every runner got faced by their first race plan decision before the race even started – do I put my rain proof jacket on and stay dry, knowing that as soon as the race start the high humidity would make it to warm to run with a jacket or do you block out the rain but then risk going into the night, ascending 2500m with wet clothes risking the cold temperatures of the mountains. There is no right or wrong. You need to know your own abilities and weaknesses. You need to trust your training and kit selection and be able to adapt to what ever Mother Nature and the race throws at you. That is why I love ultra running! Most of the races I enter I know that my chance of completing is very high but for the first time I’m lining up knowing that the odds might not be in my favour. Unlike the elite women who can practice in the mountains months before the race, my mortal life consist mainly trying to find the right balance between work, life and the school run, oh and somewhere trying to fit all the training in too.

In it’s twelve year the UTMB offers runners a chance of doing the tour of Mont Blanc individually, non stop and in semi- autonomy. The 168km route, with 9600m ascend takes your through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) starting and finishing in Chamonix with a time limit of 46-hours. To enter the UTMB you have to get 7 qualifying (next year 8-points) points in a maximum of three races. In this race it’s not just the distance which you need to take in consideration but the terrain, weather and how well you’ll cope with sleep deprivation.

Despite working harder than expected far to early into the race, I was still running within my race plan. I knew that this was going to be a race against the clock, pushing myself beyond all limits. The tick-tick sound of hiking poles and runners breathing heavily was filling the cold mountain air. I was sold the dream of breathtaking mountain views but fog and darkness was the reality. The rain drops looked like diamonds when my Silva head torch shone on them, my breath vaporising in front of me made every step a conscious decision. Mentally I’ve prepared myself that uphills will last for hours not minutes, but looking up gazing at the snake of lights, runners, individually fighting their own battle, mentally and physically.

Leaving the well equipped friendly checkpoint at La Balme with the sound of you have five minutes before cut off does give you a reality check. My mind wondering off to how many of us are going to make the next cut off point in time? I tried to push hared. Below, in the gorge I could hear the sound of an angry river. As we ascend the footpath got smaller. Running on a ledge 2500m with a drop on both sides turned my legs into jelly. My question why is there less females running ultras got bluntly answer by the thought I would like to see my daughter grow up. I realise that despite all my night running, training in the Carpathian Mountains I just don’t have the skill to run or even brisk walk over this terrain. I’m feeling fine mentally and physically, but the risk was too big and I slowed down.

I felt relieved when I reach the top. With new hope I looked at my watch. I had 40 minutes left but I have no idea how far to the next check point. But my new found hope got scattered when I realised that I wasn’t brave enough to give it my all down a grade one downhill at 4am after running for ten and halve hours. As the minutes ticked by I knew I wasn’t going to make it. My decision to slow down because I was scared made me loose too much time. There was no more room for error. Meeting up with fellow runners we relaxed a bit more, defeated by the majestic Mont Blanc. I had a wonderful time and met amazing new people. The accompaniment of Sue Foot, a fellow countryman or should I say countrywoman made reflecting much easier and despite saying that I will never do it again I felt cheated. Two years of dreaming of breathtaking sunrises over Mont Blanc and all I got was rain darkness and fog…? I don’t think so. Not finishing has showed me my weaknesses but it also highlighted that the training which I’ve done was good but I need more experience. Mont Blanc I’ll be back as we have unfinished business.

Why do I want to do it?
I want to inspire people and especially mums to show them that anything is possible if you really want it. Being out on the trails gives me the opportunity to clear my mind. When I run I’m not just a mum but I’m my own person. Every decision I make is for me not the family. Training for ultra races can be hard to fit in between work and school runs and unfortunately the race numbers reflect that. Out of the 2434 runners who started the UTMB only 200 was female. Hearing “mummy I need the toilet” as I prepare to line up for the biggest race of my life is probably not the best pre race routine but I compete for experience, not to win and to have fun and I love having my daughter, family and friends with me at races so I have to factor these things in.

Organisation
The UTMB is a very well organised ultra and it has been called the race of superlatives. The aid stations are frequent well stocked and full of friendly people. The course is lined with supporters even through the night and into the early morning hours.

On a scale of one to ten, give the race an overall rating for organisation
9/10
On a scale of one to ten, give the race an overall rating for quality of the course
10/10
Difficulty level:
10/10 but a race all ultra runners should try at least once20141222-120447-43487587.jpg

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76 miles in 2 days – Mont Blanc here I come!

After two years of preparing for the UTMB ( http://www.ultratrailmb.com) it’s finally a reality. My place is confirmed and I’m filled with mixed emotions of excitement and nervousness.

The question that most people ask me is how do you prepare for a 103mile race and what about sleep?! The most important thing is to stay calm and break the event up into smaller bite size chunks. During the winter I was working on a very intense strength training programme to ensue I can start the season stronger than last year. My first challenge came this year when I ran the South Downs Way 50(SDW50) on the Saturday followed by the Brighton Marathon on the Sunday, a total of 76 miles for the weekend. Now for most normal people the thought of doing this is insane but this is only the first of three mental running weekends. I knew that I was strong enough to do it but was fully aware the I haven’t done enough milage between January and March, but despite it all I worked out my race plan to do all three marathons in about five hours thirty minutes each. Without injury, strong legs and a good mental and nutritional plan this should be doable.

But there was something else on my mind. Last year the SDW50 was my first DNF(did not finish). I didn’t manage my clothing correctly and had to stop after 27 mile because I was too cold and wet to continue. So this year I planned my clothing and race strategy to perfection, or at least that’s what I thought. The night before the race when I was setting out all my stuff my heart STOPED and I said a sentence not the be repeated. I had everything and more except my shoes! How could I forget my shoes! Luckily I remembered that there was an old pair of running trainers in my car. On their way to retirement they had to work one more time, only 76 mile to go!

Racing was perfect! I felt great and was thrilled to completed the SDW50 in 10:57. Three minutes faster than planned which gave me a boost for the Brighton Marathon. Getting on the bus which transported us to the start line I could see a few people staring at my penguin walk, probably thinking how on earth is this women going to run a marathon, but I knew that I had a lot more to give and that within three miles I’ll be warmed up. I met my running friend Helen and lined up for the final marathon of the weekend. Our aim was to run together but my body only knew one speed and it didn’t like slowing down or speeding up so I set of on my own. My brain and body went into a auto pilot, the only goal to get to the finish line within five and a half hours.

The two races contradict each other so much. The green rolling hill with a single file of runners spread out into the distance vs. the the sea of people threading through sticky gel stations. On the long straight stretches I practice my ‘sleep running’. By following the white lines in the middle of the road I could almost close my eyes and switch off from everything around me. I practice this in some of my training runs and was brilliant to actually use it in a race. If you get this meditated sleep running right miles just seems to fly by.

Crossing the finish line in 5h25 was amazing. I manage to keep a steady pace over 76 miles preventing fatigue! Now on to the next long training weekend 115km over the Carpathian Mountains in Romania with two goals: one set up the route for my own ultra marathon (www.ultrabug.co.uk) and to test my treadmill mountain training in real mountains.