Wadi Rum Ultra

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography

The Wadi Rum desert is a protected wilderness in the south of Jordan. It’s dramatic landscape spans over 720 sq km and features deep red valleys of sandstone jebels, natural arches and pre-historic carvings that date back to 7700 BC. It is no surprise that this incredible scenery has been the backdrop to a number of films including; The Martian and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Last Days on Mars. 

The Wadi Rum Ultra is the only race in this part of the world and that is one of many things that makes this race so special. The race covers 260km, over 5 days. Runners are required to bring all their nutrition to the race but transport is provided for overnight bags from camp to camp so you only need to run with your daily provisions. 

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - Sam, me and Ollie

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - Sam, me and Ollie

This is the second year the race has been running so the field was small with just 20 participants, the majority of which were from the UK. It was nice to experience a more intimate race where you have the opportunity to build relationships with all the runners and organisers. I feel lucky to have done it this year and think that over the next few years it has the potential to substantially grow.

I booked on to the race in August after meeting up with my friends from the Marathon des Sables, Ollie and Sam who had already signed up and were looking a third team member. I didn't take much convincing. The opportunity to run in a new part of the world with like minded people is always something that excites me. 

In spreadsheet heaven...

In spreadsheet heaven...

I had just 8 weeks to train but knew I was working off a solid base of fitness having just completed my first Ironman in July. My weekly mileage only peaked at 100km but I also swam twice a week, had one strength and conditioning session and sometimes also a spin on my turbo. I've also found much more benefit in quality over quantity in terms of mileage as I’ve gained more experience in endurance sports. All my runs have some sort of focus; whether it be a tempo session or long run to test out my nutrition strategy. 

Preparing for a race like this requires much more than just physical training. There are many other elements to consider such as the sand, the heat, your hydration, nutrition and kit. Preparing for these factors requires hours of research, analysis and documenting in mega spreadsheets. As with any race, I try to replicate the conditions of the race in my training. This meant bikram yoga classes in the two weeks leading up to the race to acclimatise to hotter temperatures, long trail runs on the weekends and testing kit and nutrition in training sessions. 

Day 1 of the race started on Monday so everyone flew out on Saturday to arrive at the crack of dawn on Sunday for the kit check and race briefing day. On entering the desert, we were driven on the back of trucks to our first camp where we stayed for the first three nights. Sleeping arrangements were tents of 3 - 8 people, each with mattresses, which felt like luxury and made the world of difference to getting a decent nights sleep. Between the tents was a fire and lounge area which became the communal spot for eating, stretching and chatting to the rest of the group after each days running. 

My goals for the race were to run close to the whole race, enjoy myself, push hard, keep consistent throughout the week and use Day 1 to judge where I should aim to finish in the field.

The distances for the 5 days were split out as follows:

Bikram yoga selfie

Bikram yoga selfie

  • Day 1 - 47km
  • Day 2 - 53km
  • Day 3 - 70km
  • Day 4 - 55km
  • Day 5 - 35km

On the morning of Day 1, I was feeling excited and nervous. My race strategy is always to run to how I feel and I wanted this to be at a comfortable pace that I could maintain throughout the day. 

Day 1 can be a game changer in a multi stage race. If you go out too hard, you will pay the price for the rest of the week. I knew I shouldn't get carried away with the initial rush and ended up finishing Day 1 in 3rd position after starting out in 7th. My tactic soon became known to most of the other runners that I enjoyed hunting people down, all the way to the finish, so I got given the nickname ‘The Black Widow’ or ’The Terminator.’ This of course, did not apply to Salameh Al Aqra or Sam Hayward who led the race from the front of the pack all week. Salameh Al Aqra, a local Jordanese professional runner is a truly humble and inspirational guy and Sam Heward, equally as humble and inspirational has the potential to wow us all in his running future. 

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I was pleased to feel strong from Day 1 and finishing in 3rd overall gave me confidence in my ability and the drive to perform well for the rest of the week. Feeling strong meant I could enjoy myself for the most part and push hard when times got tough. And boy did they… The heat was relentless, particularly on Day 4 that was spent predominantly on salt flats. In times like this, I’d dig deep and focus on not letting it get the better of me, taking one checkpoint at a time and thinking of how good crossing the finish line feels.   

Most of the course was runnable and even where it wasn’t, I’d shuffle through the sand or up the hills, keeping a decent pace so I could get to the finish line each day as early as possible, usually by lunch time. This meant I'd have the afternoon to rest and recover in the form of re-fuelling, putting the legs up and getting massages from Kieran (JustOneBody), our race osteopath and Lucy, the physiotherapist, both of whom did a formidable job in taking care of all of us. 

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography

I managed to maintain my position of 3rd overall and 1st lady till the end of the race, which surpassed my performance expectations and I couldn’t be happier with. 

My final times for each stage were as below:

  • Day 1 - 47km, 5hrs 15mins (6’58min/km), 340m of ascent 
  • Day 2 - 53km, 5hrs 57mins (7’05min/km), 480m of ascent
  • Day 3 - 70km, 8hrs 17mins (7’23min/km), 503m of ascent
  • Day 4 - 55km, 6hrs 01mins (6’44min/km), 114m of ascent
  • Day 5 - 35km, 3hrs 54mins (6’36min/km), 206m of ascent
Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - The glorious finish line!!!

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - The glorious finish line!!!

I was pleased with the majority of my nutrition for the week. I ate just short of 3000 calories per day; 500 for breakfast, 500 for supper, 800 - 1000 during running and another 800 - 1000 for a recovery shake and snacks while recovering in camp. My nutrition strategy whilst running was structured around taking on fuel every 45 minutes. This varied between solids, gels and powdered sachets to reduce the chances of my stomach being overwhelmed by just one type of fuel. Each provided me with roughly 30g of carbs, which might be too little or too much for others but worked well for me as I never felt low on energy or sluggish in comparison. 

I tried LYO dehydrated meals for the first time and won’t be looking back for any future desert races. All their ingredients are natural and you get much better macros in comparison to other brands. The beef stroganoff and coconut porridge were a personal favourite! I also tried Tent Meals for extra variety and both their breakfasts and main meals were delicious. The only thing I would have changed for my nutrition would be replacing some of my afternoon snacks with another 500 calorie meal as I often had a long time to wait till dinner by the time I had finished running. 

Hydration wise, I drank close to 1.5l every 10km - 750ml of which had Elete in and the other 750ml was plain water. Hydration strategy is so person dependant but I know how much I sweat so ensured I drank frequently in small quantities. 

My kit also worked perfectly so I don’t think I would change anything there. Here is a list of my main items:

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - Last night BBQ and fire

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - Last night BBQ and fire

We were treated to a hotel room on the Friday night with beers, a buffet dinner and celebrations through the night. Before heading home, we had the opportunity to spend a day in Petra seeing one of the seven wonders of the world! A recovery day soon turned into a 15km trek but it was well worth the experience... even if it did give me an infected blister. We were later taken to the caves for a BBQ dinner around a fire before being shipped back to the airport for a sad flight home. 

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - Sleeping under these stars!

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - Sleeping under these stars!

There is so much I have taken away from this race. One highlight being sleeping under the stars in camp on Day 3 and another being watching Flora, who suffered from knee issues from Day 1, finish on the last day after 10 hours. It ran shivers through me thinking what she went through and just to be standing there with everyone else cheering her in. Aside from my position or performance in the race, the most valuable thing I will take away from the week are the memories that will be forever ingrained in me and the friendships made that I know will last a life time. The foundation of friendships made in the desert are like no other and I consider myself lucky to have shared such a special experience with all of them.  

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - Beautiful views on Day 5

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - Beautiful views on Day 5

Photo credit:  Tufnell Photography  - Wadi Rum Ultra Class of 2017

Photo credit: Tufnell Photography - Wadi Rum Ultra Class of 2017

 

 

 

 

My first... but not last Ironman experience

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I have tried to re-live that feeling experienced in the last few moments of the race I have dedicated so much of my life to for six months. There aren’t many words beyond euphoric that explain it. In the space of 20 seconds, I ran down the red carpet, flashing my mind back through memories from the start of my Ironman journey, fast forwarding through the last half year, from my first to last training session and back to the present moment; arms spread wide, high fiving the spectators as they cheered me on and fist pumping in full force. I couldn't have grinned any harder!!  

I still get butterflies thinking about it now. 

12 hours and 36 minutes earlier I stood at the start line of the 3.8km swim contemplating the day ahead and focusing on staying calm, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying every moment. David reminded me before I set off, in the words of Daniel Rowland, "the training is the hard part, now it's time to go have fun." 

The swim was going to be my first open water mass swim so I placed myself in the 1hr 12min pen (pens started from sub 1hr to 1hr30+) knowing that it would be better to have to overtake others than be swam over the top of. Generally speaking, this paid off but I still managed to get my goggles knocked off twice by other swimmers. All 27 hours of swimming practice was well worth it to feel confident and calm in the sea. There were specific bottle-neck points in the swim, like the end and the turning points that weren’t as enjoyable but I actually fed off the fact that I was there in the Mediterranean Sea amongst 2800 other racers competing in such an iconic race. I managed to make up some time and finish the swim in 1hour 8mins, putting me on schedule for transition 1 (T1). 

Photo credit: @barthbamsta

Photo credit: @barthbamsta

Going into any race with goals is important for me. I’m a planner by nature so like to have something to work towards. But setting yourself expectations for a race you have never done before isn’t easy. My target was to finish in under 13 hours, which I was honestly worried about not achieving given how nervous I was for the cycle. 

Run from the sea up to T1

Run from the sea up to T1

T1 - Swim to bike

T1 - Swim to bike

I had planned and practiced my transitions well so there was little chance of faffing between the three disciples. My HUUB Atana quick release wetsuit whipped off quickly and I put talcum powder in my socks so I wouldn’t have trouble putting my wet feet in. I wore a 2XU trisuit under my wetsuit so had no other clothing to change into. When the helmet, race belt and shoes were also on, I ran to pick up my bike and set off for the longest part of the day - a 180km cycle into the French Ligurian Alps. I was lucky enough to see both my parents, David and another colleague from work at T1. It’s always a great boost for me having supporters at a race.

 

 

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I trained the hardest I have ever trained before for this race. It became my way of life, something I put my heart and soul into.

It is worth being honest here and saying that all this training comes at a price. I might paint a pretty picture of training on Instagram, which for the most part, it is, but it has also caused friction back at home. I have led a very selfish way of life to achieve my goals and at times it can get lonely. This added a new level of pressure to the race that I hadn’t experienced before. I needed to prove to myself, and others, that everything I had sacrificed would be worth it. Over the last four years, I have taught myself how to cope with elements of stress and pressure and turn it into positive energy that further fuels my drive to get to the finish. This state of mind was important to control and could have been a deal breaker had I let it get the better of me. No endurance race relies entirely on physical preparation. Training the mind is just as important. 

I set off on the cycle expecting to be out for anything between 7 or 8 hours. That would be my longest cycle to date, in both time and distance. My furthest training ride was in the Dolomites - 122km in 6 hours with 2200m of climbing. Mentally, I knew I could cope with the 2000m of climbing in the race, having done many training rides with more climbing in proportion to distance but the idea of being out for much longer and further than I had experienced before was still slightly nerve wracking. 

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The bike course was beautiful. We cycled through small local villages and up and down long windy roads, often with fantastic views of the valleys below. It was a hot day with temperatures up to 30 degrees C. I was losing a lot of sweat so popping a salt tablet on the hour was a must!!!    

Photo credit: @olivierdechalvron

Photo credit: @olivierdechalvron

About half way into the bike, I was getting bad stomach cramps. Although I had practiced my nutrition on all of my training rides and planned to alternate between gels and bars every half hour, I made the mistake of having a whole bar in one sitting, making it hard for my stomach to digest when the rest of my body was working so hard and needing the blood in other areas. I had another problem, I had needed a wee since the start line and hadn't been able to go in the water as I was so focused on swimming that I simply couldn't do it at the same time! I had considered doing it whilst on the bike (don't judge) but couldn't pluck up the courage and again found it hard to relax enough as I was working hard to maintain a decent speed. I solved the latter problem after finding a porta loo at 70k. The stomach cramps I just had to deal with. 

Descending on the bike has to be one of my favourite parts of the race. Gaining some speed after the tough climbs was a real boost. I was hitting 50+km/hr and absolutely loving life!! 

Transitioning from the bike to the run felt good. Again I had practiced this a lot and I had now broken the back of the day, leaving it up to just me and my legs to get me to the finish. I also knew I'd be seeing my supporters 8 times as the route was 4 x laps of the promenade. 

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Unfortunately, my stomach cramps hadn't got any better and the running motion, plus the extra gels I had only made it worse. I had three pit stops on the run so it was only in the last 20km that I really felt like I could get into a rhythm and come into my own. I saw a lot of people getting pulled off into the medical tent before keeling over due to the heat and lack of shade. I probably would have done the same if it weren't for the cold showers at the check points which temporarily lowered my core temperature. 

I felt strong for the last 20km. I was passing lots of people walking and my experience in ultra running  gave me confidence in knowing that my body was capable of pushing on despite the miles I had already covered. 

The whole day went by in a whirlwind. I took a lot of learnings from the race and was so pleased that after so much hard work, I had felt so strong throughout the day and could enjoy myself. I really feel in my element with endurance triathlons now and am excited to continue with what I feel is the start of my Ironman journey. I cannot wait to bring that fish line experience back to life again.  

My times for the three disciplines and transitions were:

SWIM 3.8km - 1:08:25
T1 -  00:05:55
CYCLE 180km - 6:51:49
T2 -  00:03:37
RUN 42.2km - 4:16:26

TOTAL - 12:26

I'm proud to say that I was 1 of 8% of females racing and still managed to finish 596th out of 2800. I was 9th in my age category and 35th women overall. I am delighted with my result but know I have the potential for more. Kona is calling. As are the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Champs...  

On the road to Ironman...

2016 was a big year for me. I ran over 1000 km in races alone, in 6 different countries. That includes Mongolia for the first ever Ice Marathon, Morocco for the Marathon des Sables and Holland for the #500kin5days challenge. After such a mentally and physically challenging year I wanted to try something new. I am always asked by friends and family, "how can you top this one now?" and "what's next?"  Rather than "topping off the last", I like to choose my next challenge by thinking of it as a new experience, where I know I will have something, or even a lot to learn. Ironman has always been on my list of challenges to do and having reached a somewhat peak in ultra running after #500kin5days, I thought then would be a good time to try something completely new.

Marathon des Sables - Morocco

Marathon des Sables - Morocco

Mongolian Ice Marathon - Photo credit: Digital Pict

Mongolian Ice Marathon - Photo credit: Digital Pict

#500kin5days - Holland

#500kin5days - Holland

At the point of deciding on Ironman as my next challenge, I had never completed a triathlon, nor swam since I was at school, or ever cycled on a road bike. I have swam since a young age so knew this was a skill I could pick up again relatively easily with enough training. The cycle on the other hand really was new territory, so this was something I knew I needed to focus on, whilst maintaining my marathon fitness for the run. 

The race is in Nice, on 23rd July, so conditions on the day are likely to be hot! The original plan was to race with my boss for my first Ironman experience but he has unfortunately come down with too many injuries so will be supporting instead. It is down to him that I have discovered my passion for endurance challenges so it will mean a lot to have him there on the day. 

The full ironman consists of a 3.8km sea swim, a 180km cycle up into the mountains with 1900m of climbing and a final 42.2km run along the promenade. 

So without a clue about how to go about preparing myself for an Ironman, I decided the first thing I would do is get a coach. With so much to learn and no experience in triathlons, I knew I couldn't do this alone and it has hands down been the best decision I have made in my Ironman preparations. He has been invaluable in my progress to date (see his website here). 

A typical week in my training plan would look something like the following:

One of many training selfies...

One of many training selfies...

  • Mon: Rest
  • Tues: Intensity swim AM, recovery turbo PM
  • Wed: Strength and conditioning AM, intensity run PM
  • Thurs: Endurance swim AM, intensity turbo PM
  • Fri: Strength and conditioning AM, gentle run PM
  • Sat: Swim and long endurance cycle
  • Sun: Long endurance run

I have never worked so hard for a race and committed so much time to training. It has consumed my life for the last six months so I will have a lot to look back on during the race to keep me going when times get tough. A lot of Ironman athletes I have spoken to tell me how much they love the races but not the training because of the time involved. I have to disagree, in fact I would go as far as saying I am actually going to miss all the training. The variety of three disciples has kept it varied and I feel much more like an all-rounded athlete. This could be a testament to my coach too for always keeping it interesting and keeping me motivated. I have also never felt so good in myself. I feel strong, motivated, fit, and above all, happy. 

I have officially started my taper now. Tapering isn't much fun... but I know how crucial it is to get it right. I have put too much into this race to blow it all a couple of weeks out! I'll be focusing on getting my recovery, hydration and nutrition right and making sure my race plan, including travel logistics are ready. I should have more time to relax too!

I have mixed emotions for the race. I feel confident in my training and preparations, yet nervous for the unknown. I can't wait to soak up the atmosphere with thousands of other participants and spectators on the day. Most of all, I'm excited to put everything together on race day and leave nothing out there on the course.

I haven't booked any challenges or races post Ironman yet. There are a few races i'm eyeing up but I'd like to focus on getting past Ironman first and see where my head is at after... Whether that be back in ultras or still in triathlons, I'm not sure yet!

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Things you should start thinking about now for Marathon Des Sables 2017

With Marathon des Sables 2017 slowly creeping up on us, I thought I would share a few things that might be worth thinking about in the lead up to April. I really believe the key to success in a desert race like the Marathon des Sables is all in the preparation. So thinking about all the variables far enough in advance should at the very least put you at that start line knowing you have done the very best you can to get you through the week ahead. Here are some of the things you might want to start thinking about now. 

Shoes

Let’s be honest, without these, it would be close to impossible to finish the race (though i’d love for someone to prove me wrong!!!) so it’s so important that you find ones that suit your feet and will compliment the conditions of the desert. In terms of they type of shoes you should wear in the desert I can’t offer much better advice than - wear the shoes that you are used to and know work well for you. Obviously there are some rules around this like you’ll need trail shoes, not road shoes and if your chosen trail shoes are similar to the likes of Salomon Speedcross, I would think about buying shoes that are better ventilated and slightly softer.

Size wise, you need to consider the amount that your feet might swell in the heat. Everyone is different, so it is hard to advise how much bigger you should buy but I wouldn’t recommend getting them much over one and a half sizes bigger than your usual size (unless you’re prone to big swelling) because if you leave your feet too much room to move about in the shoe, this will create friction and hence blisters. A good way to test out how your feet swell in the heat is in a heat chamber. I appreciate this might be too late in the day to change your shoes (because you only need to do heat chamber sessions in the last two or three weeks before leaving) if they weren’t feeling right but finding out then is better than being in the middle of the Sahara desert and realising. Obviously not ideal but at least you’d have enough time to pick up a new pair and re-test them in the heat chamber whilst wearing them in slightly. Another point you might want to consider are how many socks you will wear as this will also affect the amount of wiggle room in the shoes.

The shoes that work for me are the New Balance Leadville 100’s in a half size up. My feet are regular in proportion but the shoes suit wide feet and have ample room throughout the upper section so although I wear two pairs of socks, I only need half a size up to account for swelling. Throughout the week I might slightly loosen my laces but they never felt restricted for space.

If you’re worried still you can buy a set of elastic laces that are easy to adjust and also make it easier to put your shoes on and take off. It is the little things that count out in the desert!

Gaiters

I don’t think you’ll come across anyone in the race that isn’t wearing gaiters (I didn’t anyway). It would be good to think about what one’s you want to wear early, especially if there is a long lead time to receive them. Gaiters seem a lot easier to come across now but I still go for AR Gaiters, the brand that my boss recommended to me for my first desert race in the KAEM. You can see them on their Facebook page here or email Liz on despev@worldonline.co.za.

They have plenty of colours and are pretty durable. They come all the way from South Africa and cost only $24.50 plus shipping which varies from $11-32 depending on how quickly you need them.

The most important thing is that you find somewhere or someone able to stitch the velcro to your shoes… properly. If this isn’t done properly, it’s almost pointless you having the gaiters. I would recommend researching online, asking people that have done it before where they went or just pop in to your local cobblers and ask them if they would be able to do it for you. When you find somewhere, give yourself enough time before leaving, for the cobbler to do it twice just incase it is not done properly and you need them to re-do it. When I say properly, I mean the stitching is close up against the rubber seam of the shoe and nice and tightly stitched so that it won’t loosen and fall off but not too tight that the stitch will ping off. Essentially you want the velcro to stay stitched to the seam of the shoe for the whole week with no gaps for sand to creep through.

Heat

While you won’t need to start heat training until the last few weeks before you leave, you will need to contact the heat chamber to book in your sessions. And believe me, they go fast! I booked my ten sessions in January but made initial contact in December. This will also give you a chance to factor in the finances needed to pay for the sessions. Most of the heat chambers will have two treadmills, so find someone else to split the cost with. If you don’t know anyone use the Facebook desert forums and post the dates and times you have sessions for. I shared all ten of my sessions with people I had never met and ended up making friends with. It should cost about £13/£14 per session.

So the London Universities that I know have a heat chamber are Kingston and St. Mary’s in Twickenham. If you don’t live in London, again try one of the Facebook desert forums as someone will know of other ones elsewhere.

Training plan

OBVIOUSLY, sometime soon you are going to have to start training. Everyone’s training requirements are different in so many ways but it is all based on your goals and level of experience. Unless you already know, work out what works best for you in how you approach your plan. For example, I like knowing that I have a 16 week plan in the lead up to the race and someone to talk to during my training for support. Someone else might prefer no plan at all and no one to ‘check up’ on them. No one size fits all here. If you prefer to stick to a plan, get one written for you to suit your needs and your schedule.

You might want to think about booking a few races in the lead up to the race. One a month at the most and don’t do any races in the last three weeks before you leave. These will be a good chance for you to test out your bag with some weight and also get you in ‘race mode’.

I can offer support on training / coaching so email me if you want to find out more.  

Kit and food

Packing food and kit with my spreadsheet - organised mess!

Packing food and kit with my spreadsheet - organised mess!

Yet another two very important elements to get right and start considering early. Your bag is up there for one of the most important pieces of kit you will need. It’s important you get one that is right for your frame and won’t give you any nasty sore spots. If you can, try the one on that you think you are going to buy before you make the purchase. Remember it’s just you and your bag surviving in the desert so you will want it to be your best friend, not your worst enemy.

Start to have a look at the compulsory kit list and think about buying what you need bit by bit, slowly ticking off all the items you need. 

Food wise, start trying and testing food while out on your long runs. Buy a variety of brands and types of fuel to see how your stomach takes to them on the move. However, if you are doing MdS for the first time, you will never quite know for sure how you will respond to the food in the heat of the desert so use your instinct based on what you already know about your body and how it reacts to certain foods. One thing to bear in mind is that you generally want to find a good calorie to weight ratio. If it is high in calories and light to carry, that would be ideal!

Again, I can offer support on kit and food so email me if you want advice on this.

Enjoy Christmas

If you’ve started training already or if you’re just maintaining a decent level of fitness until a full training plan kicks in in January, you might be worrying about Christmas festivities setting you back and undoing your fitness that you’ve already started to build on. Don’t get hung up on this. You can easily make the next 16 weeks count enough to get you well prepared for the race. I’d still recommend keeping running on the agenda but don’t miss out on having a life with friends and family in the most fun month of the year. Save the social rejections for 2017 and enjoy your social life while it’s not too close to the race.

I hope you found these useful and enjoy the lead up to the race. Time will fly by, you'll be there before you know it! Wish I could be going too!

 

#RecycleMyRun

Photo: Runners Need

Photo: Runners Need

Runners and their shoes are inseparable. Trainers take runners to challenging, memorable yet sometimes indescribable places. They are ingrained in the journey that runners lead to accomplish their goals. They play a part in that success and so runners can quite quickly become attached to their shoes... Unless of course you're a barefoot runner. 

Yesterday I visited the Runners Need on Waterloo bridge to say goodbye to my first ever pair of marathon trainers. I dumped them in a ‘bin’ and bid farewell to them remembering all of the fond memories I have had since my first marathon and recognised how far I have come since then. 

In the 'bin' they go

In the 'bin' they go

My trainer donation is all part of a Runners Need campaign called #RecycleMyRun. The initiative sees runners donate their old trainers and receive a £20 donation towards their next pair. The shoes are then sent to the European Recycling Company where they are either recycled or sent to countries in need of affordable trainers. 

Donated trainers are collected by the European Recycling Company (ERC) that assists people all over the UK to recycle their unwanted clothes and footwear reducing the impact of shoe waste all around the world. Recycling trainers diverts important resources from landfill and allows them to be reused or recycled, creating employment opportunities and providing footwear to those who could not otherwise afford them.

It was hard to let go despite not having used these for three years (yes I am a hoarder), but made easier knowing they would be going to someone who would make much better use of them. 

I hope that soon, they make their way to someone else’s happy feet that need them far more than me and I hope too that they take them on journeys that will live with them forever.

Thank you Runners Need for a fantastic initiative and to the wonderful team at the Waterloo store.

An emotional rollercoaster: Running the length of The Netherlands

I'm still struggling to comprehend what Lucja and I just accomplished. It's hard putting the pain and exhaustion into words. My dad doesn't think anyone will quite understand what it was that we achieved and put our bodies through unless you were there, seeing the suffering first hand. I knew this challenge wasn't going to be easy but I don't think I quite realised the scale of it before committing to the challenge.

The Pieterpad Trail - our route from North to South

The Pieterpad Trail - our route from North to South

It all started three years ago when Lucja and I met doing our first multi stage ultra marathon in the Kalahari desert. We have been great friends since, travelling around the world together to take part in ultra marathons. Having done plenty of races together, we thought it was about time we organised our own challenge. After planting the seed in Lucja's mind of organising a challenge, she came up with the idea to run across The Netherlands in our pink Runderwear. Without thinking twice, I said yes! The plan we soon hatched was to follow the Pieterpad Trail which runs from the north to the south of the country covering 500km. Being two young females we decided to raise money for breast cancer through the Pink Ribbon Foundation which fit in perfectly with the idea of wearing our pink undies. 

Planning for the challenge started in December and for the next eight months it became a secondary full time job to organise. These are just some of the tasks we had to organise between us:

Fundraising at work with a cupcake sale

Fundraising at work with a cupcake sale

  • Coordinate all 13 support crew and define responsibilities

  • Book accommodation for everyone and negotiating discounts

  • Plan the route including a GPS spot for every 10km checkpoint (CP)

  • Build a social media plan and schedule including the #500kin5days photo campaign

  • Book all travel arrangements

  • Find film producers willing to be part of the challenge

  • Film, design, plan and create a launch video for the challenge (I travelled up to Edinburgh for this)

  • Find a PR agent willing to work with us to get media attention - we found the lovely Craig Haslop, a lecturer in PR and Communications at Liverpool University

  • Raise awareness of our challenge by promoting online through our social network platforms and by contacting many media channels

  • Contact brands for free products e.g. recovery shakes from For Goodness Shakes

  • Liaise with Runderwear and The Pink Ribbon Foundation  

  • Nutrition plan

  • Organise crew car and caravan logistics

  • Keep track of all finances

  • Fundraise - bake sales, emailing for sponsorship, applying and presenting to companies for sponsorship, Crossfit event with breast checking tutorial

Our main base of training for the challenge came off the back of our preparation for Marathon des Sables, which both Lucja and I took part in in April. After a couple of weeks of rest after MdS, we had 13 weeks to prepare ourselves instead of a 16 week plan which I'd usually stick to for such a big run. Still, I knew I was in good shape after MdS so I just needed to maintain this level for the next few months.   

I can hands down say that this run was the hardest five days of my life. The sheer distance we had to run in such a short amount of time; on top of the fact that we had to organise the whole thing by ourselves puts this challenge on a completely different spectrum to any other.  

Struggling

Struggling

These both led to a level of stress on the body and the mind that I never anticipated. When you're running on average 15 hour days on five hours sleep, there is no down time (like there is in the desert) and it makes it very difficult to find the energy to prepare for the next day. When we finished for each day, instead of resting we would have to load the route map onto our watches, put everything on charge for the next day, eat the right food in preparation for the next leg, thread our blisters, get physio on our legs, shower, get our kit ready for the next day, pack up our bags for the morning, update friends and family back home of our progress, update social media for sponsorship, make sure everyone knows their duty for the morning and so on! As for sleeping, I'm not sure you could count all five hours as worthy rest. I'd be waking up in hot sweats, with joint pains and in panics about waking up in time for the next day. We were exhausted and I can remember running with heavy eyes thinking I could fall asleep while on the move.

With exhaustion comes emotion! I’m not normally the emotional type but I probably shed a year's worth of tears in the five days. I first cried 80km into Day 2, when my parents surprised me by arriving early. I've never seen my mum sprint so fast towards me with her arms wide open to hug me. It was too much for my sensitive emotions and I definitely set a few other people off too!

Our support crew were such a huge factor in our success. We had a full support crew of 13 people, four cars and one caravan. It might sound overkill but when you factor in all the crew, bags and supplies, we had just enough room for everything. It also meant the crew could rotate on CP duty, checking into hotels, sorting out dinner, checking the route, buying extra supplies and keeping us company while running (more to follow on being support crew with a guest blog by Rhianon, our fantastic team leader).
 

Lunch checkpoint on Day 2

Lunch checkpoint on Day 2

Each day we'd have on average one CP every 10k, although the crew sometimes had to improvise to shorten some CPs if we were having a bad time and felt it needed to be broken up. Half way through each day we'd enjoy a 20/30 minute lunch break where Joerie managed to sweet talk free spaces for the caravan to park and for the CP to be set up. We had campsites, someone's garden with a trampoline and even a couple of lunch tables in a beautiful monks mansion!

Windmill watch!

Windmill watch!

The scenery was surprisingly varied and beautiful. There is more to Holland than just flat farm land! We passed through many small towns that often seemed completely empty (although apparently locals were taking photos of us from their bedrooms and posting them online) and smaller villages with cute traditional Dutch houses and immaculate gardens. The whole country looked a bit like a Polly pocket village, perfectly neat and clean; designed, built and maintained to a very high standard.

The terrain was a mix of road and trail. We ran through several beautiful forests and lots of corn fields that trapped heat and became difficult to run through in the heat of the day. There were also a lot of open fields, long footpaths and road passes.
We got our fair share of hills too believe it or not and even a decent amount of soft sand to remind us of being back in the desert!
 

Pretty spot by a lake with James and Dion

Pretty spot by a lake with James and Dion

The mixed terrain unfortunately wasn't enough to counteract the impact of the hard ground and number of miles travelled on our feet and joints. Day by day the feet were getting more swollen and tender and we were having to thread and tape an increasing number of blisters and hotspots. I chose to wear Hoka Cliftons for the run, knowing that I'd need the added cushioning and support but stupidly bought only a 0.5 size up instead of one without knowing quite how much my feet would swell. For the last two days I switched back to my trusted New Balance Leadvilles, which had less cushioning but more space for the toes to breathe. Nevertheless, the rubbing was still so bad that I had to cut a massive hole in my shoe to create space and reduce the pain.

Running on a sore knee with Suzan, Rhianon and Lucja

Running on a sore knee with Suzan, Rhianon and Lucja

One problem solved, or rather helped, meant another escalated. With less cushioning, my knees were taking a lot more impact on every step and becoming increasingly sore. My right knee in particular was becoming extremely painful and causing me to limp whether walking or running. In my mind I had no choice but to run on so I opted for pain killers and mentally trying to block out the pain.

At times like these I remind myself of why I'm running. I think of how long and hard I train, all the social activities I miss out on, all the money that's been raised for charity, of people who have had to suffer even worse pain in worse conditions, of our support crew giving up their week for us and of everyone back home following and supporting us. I quite often felt like stopping but I always seemed to find something in me strong enough to persevere and get to the next CP no matter how horrendous I was feeling.

In a bad way... no time for a selfie

In a bad way... no time for a selfie

There were many low moments for me during the run. I woke up on day two in a mentally bad place. I remember hugging James goodbye wanting to burst into tears at the thought of what we were up against for the next four days. 20km into day two I was suffering from severe mid-foot discomfort. Much to both our surprise and by a complete timing coincidence, Joerie's foot specialist friend who lived nearby, met us at the next CP and gave me a foot massage. Past that point, my foot had completely recovered. I was told only after finishing the run that something had actually moved out of place in my foot and had I not seen the foot specialist, I wouldn't have been able to carry on for the next half of the day, let alone the rest of the week. He was a godsend and it was meant to be that he was there then!

The changing point in the run for me was just after the 250km point on day three when Lucja and I hit rock bottom. As we were running into CP6, Suzan and Rhianon held up a sign saying 'You girls are superheroes’. We both broke down at the sign in floods of tears and from that point on I didn't stop crying for the next two hours. We were exhausted, sore, in pain and unable to regulate heat. But more than anything, it was a huge mental struggle. Trying to comprehend that we still had another 250km left to go was hard to digest so I found myself at an all time low.

In tears and a world of pain on day three with mum

In tears and a world of pain on day three with mum

For the final two days, we were joined by Lucja’s husband, Dion. This was a real game changer for Lucja, as her spirits subsequently picked up and the psychological impact of his support meant she felt surprisingly strong in comparison to the previous day. This was not the case for me however, as I felt my situation somewhat worsen knowing that I had become the weaker of the pair. As much as I love Dion, he doesn’t have quite the same impact on me as he does Lucja.

James could see I was getting worse and became such a big part of getting me through the final two days. He ran with me for 40km on the last day, the furthest he has ever run. If there is one thing I’ll take away from this challenge, it will be how powerful people close to you can be at influencing you to carry on when you think you have nothing left. Knowing my parents were at each checkpoint was another boost getting me through each day. I could see how proud James and my parents were so I couldn’t let them down by not finishing.

Forcing a smile at the start of day four

Forcing a smile at the start of day four

Lucja knew how much I was struggling and came into my room that evening to discuss the possibility of me not being able to continue on the last day. It was a hard conversation to have, knowing that I had put doubt in her mind about finishing together, but for me, there were no two ways about it; I had come this far so couldn’t give up now and despite all the pain over the last few days I had never considered not completing the run. So I started the next day and despite the pain never getting any easier, ticked off one checkpoint at a time all the way into Maastricht where we would reach the finish.

Being joined on the final day with two local runners

Being joined on the final day with two local runners

I'll never forget the moment we reached the finish line. Neither of us could quite believe we had made it but it was such a euphoric feeling to finally get there and not have to worry about anymore running! It's still hard to comprehend quite what we have achieved and put our bodies through so I think I'm going to be pinching myself for a while to remind myself we've just run the length of a country!

The finish line!!!

The finish line!!!

Having taken a serious battering to my body, I’ve dedicated a full two weeks of rest to allow my blisters to heal after being put on antibiotics to clear an infection and to give my knees a break since I have been limping around for the past two weeks. Our donations to The Pink Ribbon Foundation have reached over £7,500 so a huge thank you to those that have donated. We are still encouraging final donations here

The whole experience was an emotional rollercoaster that I am still coming to terms with. Lucja and I have been on such a huge journey since we started running, so much of it together and I feel grateful to be able to have shared my greatest accomplishment to date with her.

I wonder when, or if, the reality of what we have accomplished will sink in, but I'll be forever proud to be able to say I’ve run the length of The Netherlands!

Thank you's: 

There are so many people to thank that made this challenge possible. 

Lucja, for her ongoing support over the last three years, for being such a great friend and running partner and for putting up with me for the most grumpy five days of my life! Your determination inspires me. My role model.

James, for being the most motivating and supportive person for me in my lowest moments during the week and for running your furthest ever to see me through the days. You were amazing.   

Mum and Dad, just being there picked me up and helped me get from one checkpoint to the next. Not an easy week for you but I'm so happy to make you both proud of me.

Rhianon, for being the most organised and positive team leader to have at the most difficult of times. Such a pleasure to have your company when running and I'll be forever grateful that you gave so much to be there to support me and Lucja. 

Dion, for making me laugh and making the last two days better for Lucja. The ease of your running inspires me and Lucja. A superstar in more than one way ;-)

Suzan, the calmest, friendliest, most lovely person. Camping, cooking, driving, running... you did it all, and always with a smile on your face. So grateful to have met you. Life long friends!

Joerie, how wonderful and patient you are! Behind the scenes, you made it seem so easy. The lunch stop was the highlight of our day. Thank you so much for spreading the word and doing so much for us. 

Tad and Rina, for looking after us so well from the start to the finish. Thank you for being so helpful, calm and patient. 

Marcin and Lukasz from Smart Film Productions, for giving up your week to film us and for having to put up with logistical route difficulties. I can't wait to see all the footage. 

Altum Consulting, how lucky we are to have met you. Thank you for your donation and sponsorship, we are so grateful. What a fantastic bunch you are and how fantastic to support people like us doing weird and wonderful things!

BrandFuel, for your ongoing support through my running journey and for helping me get where I am today. Your donation and sponsorship is appreciated greatly. 

Runderwear, for the awesome pink undies! 

Craig Haslop, for all of your PR support for our challenge. How generous and lovely of you to give up your time for us. We are so grateful.

The Pink Ribbon Foundation, for your ongoing support and encouragement. So pleased to have raised money for such a great cause.

Everyone that donated and supported us from back home, knowing you were behind us kept us pushing on and never let us give up.

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Marathon des Sables 2016

I can't decide if I chose to enter the Marathon des Sables this time last year because it was the 'big name' race to do and one to just tick off the list or if I was actually dreaming of running 257km in the Sahara desert?! What I can answer now is that for whatever reason it was I entered, I got so much more out of the race than I originally expected to. You only ever get out of something, what you put in and I put my heart and soul into this race so I could leave with my head held high knowing I left nothing out there on the course. Yes I can now tick that MdS box but I also come back with new friends, stronger bonds with old friends, endless memories and a huge sense of achievement that no one can take away from me.

The Marathon des Sables is a multi-day ultra-marathon run in six days over a course in the Sahara desert of 257km. Besides water and a bivouac to sleep under, it is completely self-sufficient, so you carry your week's supply of food, clothing, sleeping equipment and anything else you might need to survive for the week on your back.

I entered the race with what I believed to be high expectations, of finishing in the top 20 women. Having never done the race before and after seeing the impressive list of female runners I was up against, I doubted my ability to achieve top 20 and so extended the goal to top 30 as a buffer to not let myself down.

Gatwick full of MdS runners

Gatwick full of MdS runners

The week starts with a chartered flight and 6 hour coach journey, where you pick your tent mates who you will be spending the rest of the week with. My lovely all male tent buddies in number 139 made the week extra special for me. We all settled well into camp life and had such a good laugh from day 1 through to returning to the hotel (and civilisation!) in Ouarzazate 7 days later. Knowing we had to live in camp an additional two nights before the race, I packed a blow up mattress for added comfort and clothes to chuck away the morning of the first day. The longer I could keep fresh, the better! After the military style kit and medical checks where you receive your water tags and GPS tracker and finally give back your suitcase. From then on, it’s just you and your race bag so it suddenly started to feel a little bit too real!

Day 1 Tent Photo of Tent 139 (we took one every day in the same position!) (Alan's photo)

Day 1 Tent Photo of Tent 139 (we took one every day in the same position!) (Alan's photo)

My favourite photo of the route - Day 1, Dunes!

My favourite photo of the route - Day 1, Dunes!

The surprise of finishing in such a high position on day 1 left me feeling more anxious for day 2 (41.3km) than I had been on the first day. By CP2 I had caught up with Lucja so we decided to carry each other through and finish the stage together (see video below of us at the finish line on Day 2). 

The pressure of maintaining our position coupled with the long, neverending flat tracks that made up most of the day got too much for us both and from then on for the rest of the week, we both decided to run with each other. We both had a great day 3 (37.5km) and managed to maintain our position from day 2 of 13th (Lucja) and 14th lady (Me).

TeamLuRi after teaming up!

TeamLuRi after teaming up!

I had the biggest battle of the week with myself on the 84.3km long day. I am sure that in some point of everybody's race, they were pushed to the point of questioning 'Why the hell am I doing this?'. By 60km into the long day, Lucja and I couldn't even answer this question. We were so far into the deepest and darkest place that your mind spirals you into that your vision becomes so narrow minded and focused on the finish line so that all else fails to fall into perspective. This wasn’t helped by the fact that you could see the camp lights with 20km still to go! Tackling those demons is a challenge in itself but I did it by trying to remember everything I have done to be there and all of my family and friends back at home who have supported me to get where I am. Part of my coping strategy was also to split the day into the 7 checkpoint sections, to break the day up into smaller sections. It was a 15hr long day and I hadn’t expected such a tough route full of dunes and jebels for the longest day. We were both hit with heat stroke by CP4 and for the first time in the race had to take a 5 minute sit down to lower our core body temperatures and heart rate. By the time we hit the runnable sections, we were so exhausted and drained that we could only hold a running pace for a minute at a time with walking breaks in between.

Not sure why i'm still smiling...

Not sure why i'm still smiling...

Rest day was predominantly spent lying down, working my way through 3500 calories and chatting to runners around camp. By morning, it was the marathon stage and the last official timed leg of the race so I knew this was my last chance to give it all I had got left in me. The day went quickly and I enjoyed having more runnable sections to push hard on. The 42.2km stage took us 5:31hrs which was my fastest average pace of the week despite the miles already covered in the week. It was a special moment to cross the line with Lucja after sharing so much of my journey with her. I was elated to find out I had finished in 152nd place out of 1200 runners and 14th lady. There has never been such a strong field of ladies, as the top 21 females were in the top 200 compared to 13 in the past two years. A strong competitive field and a great performance by the ladies!

Pleased to reach the finish line!

Pleased to reach the finish line!

I made a lot of sacrifices to achieve my goals and I couldn't have done it without months of physically and mentally preparing myself. Lucja wrote me a 16 week training plan, incorporating a variety of strength training, hill work, stair reps, yoga, long runs, speed and tempo sessions. My weekly mileage was as little as 40-55miles, which worked for me because I have spent the past 3 years building a solid endurance base so I could focus more on getting faster and stronger. Going into the race, I was at my fittest and strongest… the rest was all in the mind!

There is so much more to the race than just the running that fulfills it being the 'toughest footrace on earth'. Don’t get me wrong, the running is hard too, the race is just so much more than just the running. You need to be a true survivor. This year, we were hit by sand storms that either affected us when we were running in the form of 50mph sand swept headwinds or when back at camp being caught in whirlwinds strong enough to pick up and throw your tent to the ground. When it wasn't windy, it was still and sweltering hot. With little to no shade, your body is exposed to hours of direct sunlight and temperatures of up to 50 degrees. We had the highest number of drop outs this year, which speaks for itself. The race is designed to test every competitor in different ways and question their every ability.

These are the sorts of questions you might find yourself questioning before you even set foot on the Sahara desert and how I prepared for them.

Before my first heat chamber session

Before my first heat chamber session

How will your body cope in the heat? Everyone gets affected differently by the heat and has different sweat rates. I personally don't cope well in hot temperatures so booked myself 10 heat chamber sessions at St. Mary's University in Twickenham and an extra 6 bikram yoga classes in the few weeks leading up to the race to acclimatise to the heat. Both were invaluable and I think helped not hinder my performance in the race. The heat chamber worked out at £33pp/h as there are two treadmills so you can split the cost with someone else. At the end of every session you get to see your fluid loss to understand how much water you should be taking on while running.

How will the feet hold up? There are some people who walk away with no blisters and others whose feet end up completely destroyed. Like most things, being able to prevent blisters and hotspots is all based on what works well for you. Firstly, find the right shoes! New Balance Leadville 100s are my shoes of choice for all trail races and i’ve never had any problems with them. I buy half a size bigger but no more. This leaves enough room for a small bit of swelling but not too much so that your feet move about in the shoes and cause rubbing. I always wear injinji toe socks as the liner and had the X-Bionic metal socks on the outside for added comfort and heat regulation. I had one blister all week! Another tip for girls, get a shellac pedicure before racing - the gel strengthens the nails so you’re less likely to lose a toenail and of course they look pretty too! For the gaiters I use AR Desert Gaiters and got the velcro stitched from a cobbler in Turnham Green. I never had any sand in my shoes so it all worked great. When finding out what works for you, try and test kit on long runs and in the heat if possible.

My daily food rations

My daily food rations

What’s more important, more calories or less weight? Pack weight and calories are two of some of the most important things you will spend hours deliberating over before you leave. The lighter you can get your bag, the easier it is to run with, but the more calories you have, the more fuel you have to keep you energised. You really need to find a balance that is right for your body and your race. I think the key here is to try and get the best of both worlds and the only way to do this is to get your kit as light as possible so you have more weight for food. I aimed my kit to be 2kg and food 4.5kg. My kit ended up being 2.5kg because I had a small sleeping mat and blow up pillow but 2kg could have been possible!

How long will each stage take me, so what food should I pack? There are some things you can't perfectly prepare for. We were only given the route and distances on the way to the bivouac so preparing for the distances each day in terms of fuel is a bit of a guessing game. I based my fuel on one gel or energy bar every hour so I worked out how much fuel I needed by guessing the distances and how long I thought that would take me to run. Knowing how much lack of energy affects my performance, if I was in doubt, I would take extra fuel. When back at camp I would snack on nuts, paperami’s, snack bars, dinner and a recovery shake.

How am I going to go to the toilet? From the second you step onto the coach to be taken to camp, you will not see a toilet again until you get to the hotel after the race. The MdS version of a toilet is a basic plastic sheet walled cubicle with a foldable, open holed seat which you have to put your poo bag in and around before sitting on. You do your business, pick up the poo bag and put it in the black bins outside. I personally preferred to walk a short distance away from camp to avoid any germs where everyone else goes.

Toilets in the distance and not much else! (Alan's photo)

Toilets in the distance and not much else! (Alan's photo)

How does it work with water? Water is rationed. Everyone is given a card to be hole punched  at water collection at CPs, in the morning and when you finish each stage. The amount provided varies on the distances but generally you have 3l in the morning, 1.5/3l at the CPs and 4.5l at the end of each stage. I never went thirsty but had to always be aware of how much I needed to save until the next supply point. 

What do I wear in the desert? My choice of desert gear, is and always will be, X-Bionic. I wore the trik top and shorts and had absolutely no problems. The material is lightweight, it stays fresh for a long time, prevents you from overheating and stops any chafing. I've worn this trick top now for two multi-stage ultras and another mountain race so the kit is definitely worth the money. 

The Marathon des Sables was hands down the most physically demanding week of my life... but if someone said to me now, if you could rewind and do it all over again... in a heartbeat i'd say yes.

Up next for me is the Lakeland 110km and then both Lucja and I are running the length of the Netherlands in just our pink Runderwear for The Pink Ribbon Foundation. Thats 500km and we want to do it in 5 days so follow our Facebook page for updates! 

Mongolia, an unforgettable experience of a lifetime

Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world with a greater population of wolves than humans. It lies in central Asia between China and Russia where most of the land is full of vast emptiness. It is exposed to long cold winters where temperatures fall to -40 degrees celsius. It must come as no surprise that until now, no one has attempted a marathon in these extreme and brutal weather conditions. 

So it was much to my luck and surprise to be invited by Lucja to the first ever Mongolian Ice Marathon. Sandbaggers, the expedition organisers, are led by David Scott who is the Honourary Consul of Mongolia in Scotland. An itinerary was created for a group of roughly 20 of us travelling through the wilderness of Mongolia, living in various nomadic gers and eating traditional nomadic food. We would also take part in activities such as wild golf, husky sledding and of course running the marathon.

The first ger camp at sunrise

The first ger camp at sunrise

Our first night away was in Istanbul where Lucja and I stayed with our KAEM friend and Turkish legend, Mahmut. We made the most of our short visit with a run in the morning and shopping trip to the grand bazaar where I bought three handbags (oops). By the afternoon we were on our last leg of the trip to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia's capital city. Flying over Mongolia was a teaser for the stunning scenery we would spend the next week waking up to. For 257 days of the year, Mongolia is cloudless with nothing but bright blue skies so when flying into the capital - for an hour and a half - all that you can see is an expanse of white hills rolling into the horizon.

The plane view for 1.5 hours!

The plane view for 1.5 hours!

Luxury toilet in the Kempsinki Hotel

Luxury toilet in the Kempsinki Hotel

We spent our last night in luxury and first night in Mongolia in Ulaan Bataars Kempsinki Hotel. We made good use of the amenities (a front and back cleansing toilet and gym) which would soon become a faint memory as living conditions got gradually worse throughout the week to fully experience the true nomadic Mongolian way of life.

Our first breath of the freezing temperatures was a shock to the system as we were instantly short of breath, in fits of coughs and the hairs in the nose started to freeze. The bitter cold is hard to explain without experiencing it for yourself but I always needed around 5 top layers and 2 bottom layers. Even with this on, the cold would find some way to creep into your bones with the toes and the hands usually being the first to suffer!

The rest of the week was spent in ger camps which slept between 3-6 people. In the middle of every ger is a coal and wood burning fire for warmth. This needed maintaining every few hours so unless one of us woke up to restock the fire we would shiver to the bone to the point where Lucja's sleeping bag liner froze over around her mouth one night. It would go from one extreme to the other so we also had one night in a sauna where we had to keep opening the front door to stand outside in our underwear to cool down from +30 degrees to -40 degrees. The gers are traditional to Mongolia and symbolic to all of the families that have built them. Each one was unique in its own way with small attentions to detail that added to the character of the interior.

One of our vans for the week in Ulaan Bataar - An old soviet one

One of our vans for the week in Ulaan Bataar - An old soviet one

Beautiful paint work inside the ger

Beautiful paint work inside the ger

Me and  Lucja  inside the ger next to the fire

Me and Lucja inside the ger next to the fire

The week wasn't short of planned activities but we still found reason to fit one more in after finding out Douglas Wilson, one of the runners from the group, was a qualified yoga teacher. Me Lucja and Lenka straight away jumped at the opportunity to have a morning yoga class in the first ger camp. It was a great way for us to relax and settle ourselves into the adventure and also get to know Doug better who has changed his life around after brain surgery to remove a brain tumour. His positive energy and stories were inspirational and humbling.

Team Awesome! Photo: Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Team Awesome! Photo: Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Me,  Lucja  and  Lenka  at Turtle Rock before the test run. Photo: Lucja

Me, Lucja and Lenka at Turtle Rock before the test run. Photo: Lucja

The first planned activity was wild golf which started off with a group one hole competition to see who could get closest to the hole. Lucja surprised herself by claiming the championship title and winning a bottle of whisky and tin of haggis. We all enjoyed having a swing about but struggled to get a good shot with so many layers on and our toes about to freeze off. While some of the men played a few more holes, the rest of us drove to Turtle Rock (a rock the shape of a turtle believe it or not) and ran back, testing our marathon kit and running for the first time in the extreme conditions of Outer Mongolia.

It was only 3 miles but we quickly experienced breathing difficulty from the altitude (1500m) and through the frozen balaclava and nostrils which limited incoming oxygen. The goggles also limited viewing perspective which took getting used to. It was good to get a feel for the conditions but it certainly confirmed how tough the marathon was going to be.

Post test run picture - note the frozen hair and beards! Photo: Lucja

Post test run picture - note the frozen hair and beards! Photo: Lucja

The next camp we would stay two nights in and start the marathon from. With a bit of free time we hiked up to the top of a nearby hill for the beautiful views and chance to take selfies. Before freezing at the summit we scrambled down for another yoga and meditation class.

Every evening after the sun set we would all group into one of the gers chatting and sharing stories. The Mongolian drivers would join us too with bottles of vodka and whisky. For every shot they poured, a toast would be made and out of politeness we couldn't refuse them. However, on pre marathon night we all got an early night to rest up and conserve our energy.

Every night we got the chance to see the stars in the clear skies so we were never short of a beautiful view whether light or dark.

Star light at night in the ger camp. Photo by Johnny Graham,  Digitalpic t

Star light at night in the ger camp. Photo by Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Flatbread breakfast...tasty :/ Photo: Shona

Flatbread breakfast...tasty :/ Photo: Shona

On marathon day we were fed a plate of dry flat bread for breakfast. Unfortunately Mongolia isn't famous for good food which took its toll by the end of the week. There were a few dumpling and goat meals that were tasty but the majority was carbohydrate based, leaving us feeling stodgy and vitamin deficient during the trip. Leftover bananas and honey were our saviour for before the marathon and made do to tide us over.

At 10am we set off for 26.2 miles of running across the Mongolian wilderness. The out and back route for safety was a mix of trail and frozen river. The breathtaking scenery, pure silence and little to no evidence of human inhabitants made me excited, nervous and more aware of my surroundings. Without sounding cliche, I have never felt so close to earth and nature - being exposed to the brutal environment and life threatening conditions including the risk of falling through the river, getting lost and freezing to death or being caught by wolves made me recognise the power of nature over humans.

Marathon group - can you spot me? Photo: Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Marathon group - can you spot me? Photo: Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

A few miles into the route we joined the Tuul Gol River. The ice was more slippy than my practice run on the ice rink but the spikes worked great and gave enough traction to keep me on two feet. I ran the whole route with Lenka. It was great to have company and have someone to share the experience with. I also felt safer with Lenka on the off chance that something bad might happen. Occasionally our silence was broken with large echoing rumbles. At first I thought it could have been animals or wolves in the distance or even an earthquake rumbling beneath us but we later found out it was the ice compressing underneath our steps. Some steps were louder than others and a few times I had to side step or speed up with the fear of falling through! 

Me and  Lenka  running. Screenshot from HUTCH/Rich Alexander footage

Me and Lenka running. Screenshot from HUTCH/Rich Alexander footage

En route, we saw wild horses, a huge camel, an ice igloo, a few ger camps and never ending stunning scenery. We were lucky with the weather as we had nothing but blue skies and temperature recordings of -34 degrees Celsius - this was still tough to run in but it certainly could have been a lot worse. Despite the lucky conditions I would still call this the hardest marathon I have ever done. For the first half hour I had no feeling in my toes and for the whole run I had breathing difficulty from the altitude and frozen breath around my balaclava. Every so often I had to take my gloves off and remove the icicles around my mouth and nose but this couldn't be for long as my fingers would quickly start to freeze. My goggles also steamed up which then froze so visibility was poor for about 3 miles before I stopped to defrost the insides. 

Me and Lenka running with cows. Screenshot from HUTCH/Rich Alexander footage

Me and Lenka running with cows. Screenshot from HUTCH/Rich Alexander footage

It was great to see Doc Andrew Murray fly past on his run back past half way and later hear that he finished in a cracking time of 3:05 - that man is superhuman! I have to mention he also ran an extra 104km in 11 hours 2 days later. He might sound like a nutter but he is a real inspiration!  

Photo by Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Photo by Johnny Graham, Digitalpict

Hugs at the finish line - Me, Lucja and Lenka

Hugs at the finish line - Me, Lucja and Lenka

Second male was Doug in 3:42 and third Paul in 4:12. First lady was the amazing Lucja in 4:19 and in joint second place came myself and Lenka in 4:55. It was such a fantastic feeling to finish. We could now finally relax and de frost.

After a safe return back to camp by everyone, we travelled to the next camp where the next morning Lucja, Lenka, Rich and I would all be starting the husky sledding from. The rather impromptu safety beefing in true Mongolian style for the husky sledding instructed me how to brake and then released me from the fence brace in all but 10 seconds. Lucja managed to fall off after the first 100 metres so I made sure to hold on tight and push down hard on the break as the huskies were fired up for a fast ride.

Me riding the huskies. Photo: Lucja

Me riding the huskies. Photo: Lucja

Me and Lucja warming up by the fire over a frozen river! Photo: Lucja

Me and Lucja warming up by the fire over a frozen river! Photo: Lucja

The journey on the husky sleds along the frozen river was one of the most amazing experiences and one to never be forgotten. We finished the ride off with a not so surreal picnic and wood burning fire over the frozen river (as you do).

When we reached the final camp I watched the local nomadic family milk the cows, then we had dinner, drank some vodka and waited till dark when we would all spend our last evening watching a tree up in flames. It was a perfect ending to such an amazing week as we all stood around the fire, listening to music, chatting and performing Mongolian rituals. 

Group shot by the burning tree after a few vodkas. Photo: Lucja

Group shot by the burning tree after a few vodkas. Photo: Lucja

If you have never been to Mongolia and wish to escape to a remote, undiscovered part of the world, put it on your bucket list. You will no doubt have an unforgettable experience of a life time like I have just done. Thank you Sandbaggers and all of the wonderful friends I was lucky enough to share this adventure with.


My top tips and things that worked for me when running on ice and in sub-zero temperatures:

  •  An invaluable tip from Doc Andrew Murray was to cut a hole in the balaclava around your mouth. This stops the water vapour from freezing solid around your mouth as you breathe out which could lead to frostbite.
  • Hand warmers! These were perfect for keeping the hands warm, especially as I had to take my gloves off a couple of times.
  • Cliff shot blocks were great frozen!! They still maintained some chewiness and just needed 10 seconds in the mouth to soften. Tasted like a chewy sweet!
  • I kept my gels in my sports bra and in my gloves next to the hand warmers so they wouldn't freeze.
  • I wore a balaclava that I could easily pull down under my chin for when I needed to eat or drink. 
  • Don't expose any of your skin for too long! Shona Thompson got a nice bit of frostbite on her ears as they were exposed which goes to show how cold it was out there.
  • Charge any of the devices you wish to run with prior to running. In the cold batteries run down so quickly so you need as much battery as possible. 

It wasn't easy packing for an ice run, having never done one before so here is a list of everything I wore for the run:
Base layer top - inov8 base elite merino, black
Top layer top - X bionic ski touring instructor light, white
Down jacket for the start to keep me warm - Hi Gear Packlite Down Jacket
Bag - Solomon S-Lab Ultra Vest
Base layer leggings - Odlo Long Evolution Pants
Top layer leggings - skins Thermal Long Tights
Base layer socks - injinji Lightweight Mini-Crew
Top layer socks - X bionic Ski Touring Silver
Shoes - New Balance Leadville 100
Balaclava
Buff - Black buff
Goggles - bolle carve
Hat - asics Winter Beanie
Base gloves - e gloves
Mid layer gloves - Montane Prism Mitts
Other necessities - Hotties Hand Warmers

Coach Lucja!

KAEM 2014

KAEM 2014

I met Lucja on my first desert ultra-marathon in the Kalahari in October 2013 and we have stayed in contact since as coach and trainee but as also as great friends.

Lucja started training me the following summer in preparation for KAEM 2014. The aim was to improve my performance and compete closer to the front of the pack than in 2013. I spent a long weekend up in Edinburgh discussing my plan, aims and goals and seeing Edinburgh for the first time. That summer I stuck the best I could to a rigorous plan, increasing my training to more than I had ever committed to before. Since then, Lucja has made sure I have always had a plan to follow whether for a big race like Transvulcania in May 2015 (see race review here)  or no race at all. 

The shoes that took us through Transvulcania!

The shoes that took us through Transvulcania!

Having Lucja for a coach keeps me on the ball throughout the year but she also understands and appreciates when i have a good reason for not sticking to my plan religiously. I remember one week I had to play around with the schedule, she said to me "even the best plans need tweaking". It's so hard to predict exactly what you're going to be doing months in advance and something always seems to creep up when you least expect it to so flexibility is important and Lucja completely agrees with that. She understands and respects the balance between having a life and having to make sacrifices for wanting to be a contender in the races I do. What's great is if something does need swapping round, Lucja will always advise on what might be best to change. 

Fun run in La Palma - our girly holiday

Fun run in La Palma - our girly holiday

How it works being in different cities...
As much as I'd love to live closer to Lucja so we could train more together, living in different cities doesn't stop us from keeping each other going when training for a race.
We keep in constant contact on WhatsApp, have phone calls when we need to discuss a training plan or anything else at length and use an online training plan so we can both update it live. I enter all of my commitments whether they are or aren't running related and Lucja schedules the plan around this.

The content of the plan varies each week but generally consists of one tempo run, a hills or stairs run, occasionally a steady run or another speed session, a strength class and a long run and recovery run on the weekend. I generally have one day off a week which is on Friday to let my body rest before the long weekend runs. 

Part of my varied training - Yoga on a rooftop!

Part of my varied training - Yoga on a rooftop!

Lucja has encouraged me to include various types of training to benefit my running. The biggest mistake I made when training for my first marathon was wasting so much time on junk miles. I never really understood until learning from Lucja that every run needs to have a purpose. Whether this be time on your feet, pace, reps, pack weight, testing kit or just distance. Since putting this into practice I have improved as a runner and put more thought into my end aims and goals.

Lucja is so generous with sharing advice and the best way to approach my training. I can always rely on her level headed, positive, rational opinions and suggestions which always have my best interest at heart. 

Race to the Stones 100km - Lucja and Dion came to support me

Race to the Stones 100km - Lucja and Dion came to support me

It doesn't stop there either! Not only does Lucja have loads of tips, but you get 2 for 1 as her hubby Dion who is a great multistage runner (32nd in MDS!) also chips in with valuable advice. When planning my nutrition for KAEM 2014 they saved me from taking far too little. If it wasn't for them, I would have turned up with the bare minimum and not enough fuel to get me through the week! They sent me their spreadsheet to compare and get a better idea of the number of calories I should be consuming. They also considerably helped me get my pack weight down. They wouldn't even let me take a razor head!!! I mean no one wants jumanji sleeping next to them do they?! ;-) Needless to say, I clearly needed a ruthless eye to go through my pack contents!

A morning London run with Dion - and an obligatory selfie

A morning London run with Dion - and an obligatory selfie

When writing my plan she also picks out the weekends where I could fit in shorter races for speed practice and will then research what's going on around my area to encourage me to book the races I should be fitting into my training plan, sending me links to those which would be suitable.

With Lucjas help and coaching I have improved significantly. I am more knowledgable, stronger, faster and more competitive. The most obvious example of my improvement was between KAEM 2013 and 2014 where I decreased my time by over 10 hours from 42:59 to 32:08 and my position from 9th to 5th female. I now feel comfortable setting myself competitive and challenging goals rather than just wanting to finish. 

At Dorset Endurancelife Ultra

At Dorset Endurancelife Ultra

I genuinely can't emphasise enough how valuable all of the knowledge I have gained about running through Lucja is. I will forever be in debt and certainly wouldn't be where I am today without her. 

A coach and friend for life. 

At the end of Transvulcania

At the end of Transvulcania