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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Kepler Challenge - race reflections

The Kepler is over for another year, this my second time running this superb race.

These are some thoughts on what to expect running the Kepler, for those that haven’t yet had the privilege.  And I do think it’s a privilege to traverse this track, one of New Zealand’s great walks.  It’s what brings me back to it, together with the amazing community spirit from the people of Te Anau that wraps around it.

I’ll mention the community spirit first.  There’s quite a different feel about a race that has the passionate support of the local community and, perhaps incidentally, that is not-for-profit.  Te Anau is a small town on the edge of a beautiful wilderness.  It is the jump off point for excursions into the Fiordland National Park, including the Kepler and Milford Tracks.  The Kepler Challenge appears to have a special place in the heart of the people of Te Anau.

As a runner, this community spirit displays itself in the aid stations, which for some of them have become performance art.  This year we had hippies, Where’s Wally, Santa and the Papal Curia.  We had a group of well-wishers that had camped out on the side of the lake to cheer us on has we turned up the hill towards Luxmore.  We had groups of locals that had gathered at the points in the track that can be accessed from the road or water.  All full of smiles and encouragement.  And it lifts you.  Excellent effort Te Anau.

I think of the race in five parts.  The first is the gentle trail around the lake, with the sun reflecting off the glistening water.  The second is the climb through the forest up to Luxmore Hut.  The third is the alpine section over the tops.  The fourth is the drop down into Iris Burn.  The fifth, the longest, is the second half of the race past Lake Manapouri and down the valley to the control gates at the finish.

The gentle trail around the lake is a warm up, with the chill air of the early morning and plenty of banter among the runners.  The second part up to Luxmore Hut is what I would regard as a steady climb, not technical and not particularly challenging.  Most people are walking, but it is definitely runnable.

My key tip at this stage is to change into warmer gear before you hit the alpine section above the tree line.  I put on a long-sleeved top, my parka, my hat and gloves.  Once over the tree line it can feel like you have stepped into a fridge.  This year the wind wasn’t too bad, but with wind chill it was approaching zero degrees.  The previous time I did the race, I got changed after I realised it was cold, and spent ages shivering and fiddling around trying to put on my gear.

The third part, across the tops, is honest mountain running.  You are almost certain to have your bag checked for the compulsory gear at Luxmore.  The trail becomes narrower and gnarlier, with snow and ice patches this year to contend with.  It didn’t feel all that treacherous this year, but if the wind gets up it feels quite different. 

It’s pretty clear when you are on the tops that you need decent trail shoes.  There were quite a lot of runners that were using normal road running shoes and the lack of grip would have been unnerving for them on this stage.  Plus, you are smacking into rocks from time to time and need toe protection. 

The race website says the vertical is about 1.3km, but my Suunto suggests it was closer to 2km.  It felt more like 2km to me.

The fourth part is the drop down off the alpine section into the tranquility of the valley below.  The trail is basically pretty smooth in this section, which allows you to open up a bit on the descent, flowing into the switch backs with a good racing line.

The one thing I would say about the aid stations is the food is basic.  You really just have oranges and bananas, which means you need to carry all the supplemental nutrition to get you through the race.  Oh yes, they also have jelly airplanes.  But there are lots of aid stations, around 10.  This means you are never much more than 60-90 minutes from an aid station.  This means you don’t have to completely fill up on water and so carry less weight.

The final, longest, part is the 30 odd kilometres down the valley to the finish.  This could best be described as meandering, rolling terrain.  The track is very good and you can get a rhythm going.  It is beautiful, alongside the river, but there is not much variation here.  Just drop into a meditative state and power through to the finish.

Just before turning into the finishing straight, a guy approached me with a film camera and asked what I thought of the race.  I said I really loved this race and appreciated the warm support on the trail.  

It’s such a special race in a special part of the world.  

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dolomiti di Brenta race 2016

Scrambling up the steep scree slope leading to the final pass at Bocca di Brenta, one of the mountain safety guides called my name, “from New Zealand?” yes, “a lawyer?”, yes, “I am a lawyer too!”.  It was hard to maintain a footing with the rocks sliding under my feet, but I was able to brace myself with my poles and shake his hand.  It wasn’t far to the top he said, maybe 25 minutes.

It was a nice moment, at one of the toughest parts of the course.  I was somewhat of a curiosity - one of only a few non-Italians in the race and probably the only one from the southern hemisphere.  How did I find out about the race, Herbert was curious to know when I registered?  I was travelling to Europe in September and wanted to run a race in the mountains. I knew of the Dolomites’ reputation and this was a great choice.

This was year one of the DBT.  A year zero was held in 2015 to test out the course and race organisation.  There were 300 entered in the 64km race and the same number in the 45km race.  I was participating in the 64km with 4200m+.  It had the ambiance of a local race, low key and down to earth, but in a stunning setting. 

The race was at the start of September.  It begins and ends in Molveno, a small lakeside village in the Dolomites, in Trentino in north-eastern Italy.  This year’s Giro d’Italia had passed through the area.  The riders would have strained to climb the hills and thrilled at the descents.  The weather forecast for the race day was good, we were told at the briefing, with thunderstorms around the area in the late afternoon.  This meant we would have a good view of the mountains.

There were three main passes to climb, each at around 2300-2500m.  Molveno was at about 800m and the first ascent was about 1500m+, with the other two passes involving less climb and a long descent at the very end of about 1700m- down to Molveno.  With each pass came a new landscape and a new set of experiences.  We would roughly circumnavigate the Cima Brenta mountain range, an area rich in mountaineering history and a UNESCO world heritage site. 

The race began at 6am and we climbed gently on a wooded trail alongside the river on the way up to the neighbouring village of Andalo.  The sky started to lighten by the time I reached Andalo and the serious climbing began up through the Polsa forest.  The rising sun cast an orange glow through the trees.  The sign on the side of the trail said “bear country”; there are about a dozen brown bears in the area, probably keeping well clear of humans.

Emerging out of the forest and cresting the hill, I turned into Val Dei Cavai for the climb towards Sella del Montoz.  The race was unfolding well ahead of me as I worked my way up the valley with a view others at the back of the field.  The temperature dropped again in the shade of the steep hills all around the valley.  I climbed steadily and within myself with the prospect of a big day ahead.

I dropped down the trail into Val di Non, as vistas opened up of the valleys far below.  It was a long, easy traverse down to the aid station at Termoncello.  I snacked on ham and parmesan cheese and tried to chat with the aid station volunteers.  My Italian was limited, as was their English, but we communicated enough to express warmth and gratitude and point the way. 

The next stage of the race had begun.  The route wound through an open, grassy valley of Campo di Flavona.  The valley is populated with chamois and mountain ibex, as well as alpine cows with noisy bells, maddeningly ringing constantly.  Towering mountains loom on one side.  These mountains eroded over time, revealing the vertical and gnarled faces of dolomite rock, surrounded by an enormous skirt of scree at its base.  The route was indistinct, with many trails crossing the race route at various places.  This valley had clearly been a cross-road for travellers throughout the ages.

I climbed into the alpine area and around to the top of the next pass, the Passo del Groste.  Just over the top was the next aid station at Rifugio Graffer al Grostè.  The ski chair lifts carried mountain bikers up to the top and I descended with riders down the slope towards Rifuge Casinei and then into the rich valley of Valle Sinella.  I was about an hour inside the cut off time at this point.
A short climb pushed up towards Rifugi Tuckett e Sella.  Many of the mountaineering routes seem to begin at the rifuge.  There was a surprising mix of day trekkers walking to Tuckett and back, with serious climbers preparing to scale the surrounding mountains.  “Salve” is a way of saying hello in alpine Italian and I said it dozens of times on the route up to the rifuge. 

The route up to Tuckett was a struggle, made more difficult by nausea and stomach troubles.  Slowing down, taking shallower breaths, allowed things to be brought back under control.  I rested a while at Tuckett, enjoying the views and chatting to other back of the pack runners. 

Dropping down from Tuckett opened up the valley of Val Brenta, with hanging glaciers on the other side and vertical drops to the floor below.  This stage of the race was the most spectacular and all adjectives seem trivial to describe the beauty of the area.  There was a small shrine along the path, with name plates and pictures of several dozen climbers who had perished over the years in the mountains.  You couldn’t help but pause and pay respect to these climbers for their endeavour and risks they faced.
As the path carved its way around the side of the mountains, I approached the head of the valley at Bocca di Brenta.  The trail opened up onto a field of large boulders that could only be clambered over or around and then navigating up the scree slope, where I met my lawyer friend. 

This was the last mountain pass at about 50km and the friendly welcome at Rifugi Tosa e Pedrotti was had just on the other side.  There was still about 90 minutes of daylight left and I made my way quickly and as carefully as I could down the rocky and twisty path.  The finish felt within reach and I did not want to roll an ankle at this point.  The light of day faded and the remainder of the race would be under the beam of my head torch, picking out the white of the rocks on the trail and the race ribbons every 100m or so. 

The beam narrows your vision, but every once in a while, I was aware of a drop off to the side of the trail, requiring focus to avoid stumbling, but also to avoid stepping on the mountain toads that populated the trail.  I dropped further down into the forest and then the lights of Molveno could be seen below.  The final stretch wound through the old part of town and down to the lakeshore to cross the finish line.

My finish time was 16 hours 44 minutes.  I thought I was going to be comfortably inside the cut off time of 17 hours, but the descent into Molveno took longer than anticipated; if I’d spent 3 or 4 more minutes at each of the aid stations, I wouldn’t have made it in time.    

The DBT was a very well organised race in an outstanding part of the world and I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to participate and reach the end.  Thanks to Herbert, Elisabetta and the team!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

MacLehose Trail stages 1, 2 and 3

This was my return to the great MacLehose Trail after completing stages 4 and 5 a few years ago (here’s a link to my post on that).  I’ve now completed half the stages!

I flew into Hong Kong at 6.30am from New Zealand, dropped my bags off at the hotel and got on my way.  From Tai Koo, I took the MTR to Choi Hung (about 20 minutes on a Saturday morning), then a minibus to Sai Kung.  And then another minibus to the start of the first stage at Pak Tam Chung.  All up, that was probably about 90 minutes from my hotel.  It’s quite straightforward (and inexpensive).

I went to the visitor centre at Pak Tam Chung and got a map of the trail.  I told the guy I was doing 1, 2 and 3.  He politely suggested that I stop at the end of stage 2.  Stage 3, he said, would be “strenuous”.  I liked his understated manner; he proved to be right of course.

Each stage is about 10km.  Stage one circumnavigates the western and southern sides of the very large High Island Reservoir.  It’s all on road and pretty much flat.  There’s a stream of taxis to contend with, dropping people at the far end of the stage, at the East Dam.  The reservoir is scenic and you get to view the hills to the north of you that you will have to cross over in stage 2.  There was little shade and the day was beginning to warm up.  It’s a gentle start.

Stage two is a bit more serious at the start.  There’s a 300m climb to Sai Wan Shan, where views open up to the coast, dropping down to a series of white sandy beaches.  The Oxfam Trailwalker 2016 is in a few weeks and it follows the stages that I was on, plus a few others!  There were a number of teams training on the course, probably wondering what they’d let themselves in for.

The beaches had a number of day trippers, with boats ferrying people to and from Sai Kung.  There were little restaurants where I topped up on drinks and got out of the heat of the sun.  This stage of the trail was very busy and had by far the most people.  It’s great the way that the people of Hong Kong use their lovely country parks.  I was greeted with lots of smiles and hellos.

The trails in this stage are mostly concreted.  This stage must be one of the most accessible and popular on the MacLehose, so it maybe makes sense.  But it somewhat takes away from the experience of being out in the parkland.  It’s also the most picturesque stage, with nice viewpoints on the headlands between the beaches.

The stage ends at the road at Pak Tam Au.  There’s a little shop here where you can top up on supplies (there’s no shops on stage 3!).  It looks like you could flag a taxi or take a bus back from here if you choose to stop at the end of this stage.

Stage 3 is the real thing. The crowds vanish and the Trailwalkers and a few others were the only other people on the trail with me.  The trails were a mixture of rocky, some stone steps and hard packed clay.  The concrete paths were gone!  There were a few areas where you could open up to a run, but mostly it was trekking for me.

The first climb was the hardest of the day; about 3km with about 380m+.  Fortunately, there’s shade, but it was a laborious climb.  The views in this stage were more distant as you move further away from the coast.  The flight path was overhead and planes flew over every minute or so.  I wondered if they could see me and made a note to check if I could spot anyone in the hills next time I flew in.

The long descent brought me down into a valley.  I had a faint hope that this would be the end of the stage, as there was a steep hill on the other side.  Well that wasn’t going to happen as that hill would have to be climbed. 

It was shorter than the first, but seemed just as hard, as false tops came one after the other.  But eventually it came to an end followed by a long, quad-busting descent, taking me down to the end of the stage and Pak Tam Road.  I flagged one of the many taxis passing by, which dropped me off at Sai Kung again, to take the minibus and MTR back to the hotel.

Today I experienced some of the different qualities of the MacLehose.  Stages 4 and 5, that I had previously done, were demanding, but stunning, particularly towards the end as you see views of Kowloon.  Stage 1 was really just the entry point to the trail, a warm up.  Stage 2 had the best views, although the most people.  Stage 3 was the most strenuous, as my friend at the visitor centre predicted, more like stages 4 and 5. 

The total distance covered in the three stages was 32.05km, with 1,620+ and a time of a bit under 7 1/2 hours. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Plantar fasciitis – how it's been for me

This post is about my experience with plantar fasciitis and some of the stupid things I did about it and some of the good things.  It is also about the other things I did, which ultimately improved my life and my running.

This definitely isn’t a medical post.  I have no qualifications that mean that I should be listened to in the treatment of this injury – it’s just about me.

Plantar fasciitis struck me in October 2014.  I was on a fairly long road run and felt sore on the sole of my right foot.  I went to the physio and they diagnosed it.  In November 2014, I had an ultrasound, which confirmed the diagnosis.  There were micro tears and some swelling in the fascia tissue in front of the heel and lateral side of the tissue.

I had made two changes to my normal routine in the lead up to that run which probably contributed to the injury.  First, I had been doing some short, sharp 5km races.  This type of high intensity running involves loading up the body, but it was great going fast.  The second thing I did was I bought some Hoka road shoes and had started to run in them.  My normal running shoe was Asics, a completely different type of shoe.  My mileage hadn’t increased very much in the lead up to the injury and there were no other changes.

The plantar fascia is a thick fibrous band of connective tissue, that runs from the heel bone that sort of splays out to separate strands attaching to the base of the toes.  It was described to me as like a thicker version of that milky film of tissue that wraps around a filet steak.  In fact, the muscles all over your body are wrapped in this sort of tissue.

Plantar fasciitis involves micro tears in this fibrous band.  Because there is little blood flow in the plantar fascia (like the Achilles tendon), healing can be slow.  Plus, you walk on them every day, which can’t help.

The conservative school of thought seemed to be that the fascia needed to be rested and supported to allow it to heal.  This may include arch support in your shoes and donut padding in the heel area to relieve pressure.  You stop running and you avoid walking around the house barefoot.  A more radical school of thought is that the fascia needs strengthening and that it is the weakness in the fascia that is the cause of the fasciitis.  A stronger fascia will aid healing.

Impatient to return to running, and attracted by the apparent logic, I followed the more radical school of thought.  This involved wearing minimalist shoes when not running (I was wearing Vivo barefoot), which, because of their complete lack of support, would strengthen the fascia.  At work, I even swapped out my leather work shoes for the leather low boot style of Vivo.  I was also going into summer, so I spent a lot of time actually in barefoot.

I avoided physio (due partly to lack of confidence they could fix it, but I felt like I was improving) and I sought out evidence online to support the course of action I was taking (confirmation bias).  I laid off running.

I took the opportunity to make several other changes in my life.  I focussed on my diet, by reducing sugars and fast carbs.  My weight stayed off, even though my exercise workload reduced.  I also picked up yoga.  I was inflexible in all sorts of ways and this has helped a lot in improving my flexibility, which will help my running.  I still do some yoga every day and I’ve continued my improved diet.

So, fast-forward 12 months.  I had another ultrasound towards the end of 2015.  The news was there had been no healing and the tears were worse than before if anything. 

My conclusion from all that is the more radical approach of strengthening the fascia does not assist healing.  It may be helpful after healing, but not as a means of healing.  The conservative approach would probably have been better for me.

I then stopped wearing the Vivos and went to see a physio.  She undertook a programme of deep tissue massage on the fascia.  She described it as taut and rigid when she got started on me.  The deep tissue massage hurts like hell, but it promotes alignment of the collagen fibres.  I had deep tissue work for about 3 months and the fascia softened considerably over that period.

The other thing I did was stretch the fascia, which I did by sitting back on my heels, with my toes straight out in front.  It’s quite hard to do this on a hard floor, so I do most of it on a pillow or on the sofa.  I hold it for about 30 seconds and try and do it about 3 or 4 times a day. 

These two things, the deep tissue massage and the fascia stretch, were key to my improvement I think.  I have ditched the Hokas and back to the Asics and I avoid high intensity runs.  Now, I’m running about 8-10 hours a week – mostly off-road.  I still think its not 100% healed, but its manageable and it’s not getting worse.

This injury is unlike any other that I have experienced before.  The sheer length of time that it took to get back to close to normal means good strategies are required to get you mentally and physically through.  It took me about 15 months, which is horrendous, but I didn’t help myself in some of the things I did.  The good news for most people is it should take a lot less time than that to heal. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Runner by Lizzy Hawker - a book review

It’s winter and I’m trying to let an injury heal, so what better way to spend the weekend than to read some running books.  Runner by Lizzy Hawker arrived in the post the other day.

Runner is Lizzy’s first book.  She needs little introduction – she is one of the most accomplished ultra-runners of her age.  She won the UTMB women’s category five times between 2005 and 2012, as well as first woman and third overall at Spartathlon in 2012.   

Runner has three parts.  The first revolves around Lizzy’s early upbringing, her professional career as an oceanographer and introduces her abiding love of the mountains.  But this initial part of the book is really wrapped around her first attempt at UTMB, as she tells her story of a race in which she had no expectations but went on to win as first female.

She writes evocatively of the journey of the race – the air, the smells, the feel - the trail as it winds up, down, over and through the route around Mont Blanc.  She introduces me to one of my new favourite words “alpenglow”, which describes the colour in the sky as the sun sets on the hills.  As she wasn’t really at UTMB to race, she was there to enjoy the experience and for the challenge.  She returns to London, slipping back into normality, and realising that her world had changed.

Lizzy lets us into her life and what motivates her.  She talks of running for the joy, rather than the purpose, of it - running for no other reason than for pleasure.  And how she feels most at home in the mountains, living a simple uncluttered existence amongst the grandeur of the Alps.

The second part takes us to the Himalaya and starts at Everest Base Camp.  We learn much more about Lizzy in the middle stages of the book, and how this part of the world has special meaning for her. Lizzy has a strong affection for the Nepalese people, their beliefs and their culture and she writes tenderly of her experiences with them and their unique way of life.

Lizzy tells of her third expedition from Base Camp (5,350m) to Kathmandu (1,400m); a total distance of some 320km (10km ascent; 14km descent), which she completes in less than three days.  An extraordinary distance and elevation and achieved largely unsupported.  Before an airport built in the hills allowed easier access between Everest and Kathmandu, you had to walk – or run as the early messengers would have done.

This is more about Lizzy the adventurer, rather than the competitor.  There was no race and no other runners.  There was a fastest known time, but that didn’t seem to drive her.  Her attachment to the place and its people provided the context and meaning for her efforts. 

Although she is competitive.  As she grows as a professional runner, she draws on an energy and a focus that helps her to win.  But at one point she talks of resting in stillness while in a race.  That experience where she is back to that momentary state of joy of running.  This tells us something about her, how she is both driven and tranquil at the same time.

The third part of the book is called “a journey of rediscovery and realisation” and it left the biggest impression on me.  Lizzy is at her most reflective in this part as she comes to terms with her physical limitations through injury.  Her body had done everything she could possibly have asked of it up to that point, but then it couldn’t.  It challenges her appreciation of who she is, as so much of what she could do and did is now no longer possible.  She talks openly about the emotional arc of the upswing of recovery, to the downswing of re-injury. 

She takes it as an opportunity to grow those parts of herself that had not had the attention as she pursued the pinnacles of her sport.  She re-aligns and finds another space for herself, still immersed in the mountains, but alive and open to other experiences.  She talks about “ke garne”, a Nepalese expression roughly translated to “what to do?”; how do we cope and manage when things change.

This final part of the book is also something of a love story.  Lizzy writes at times to an unnamed person, of the moments they shared and the inspiration and support that person gave her.  We end the book knowing little more of this part of her life, but it is touching.

Lizzy, thanks for being so generous in your story.  I loved hearing about the mountains, about the Himalaya and about your new challenges.  Best wishes.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

UTMB-CCC race preparation

Hills are the only place to start when thinking about preparations for the CCC.  No other feature of the race, I would say even the distance, is as important as the hills you will face.  Your ability to cope on the hills, up and down, will determine the outcome of your race.

There are five major hills in the CCC.  The first and longest is within the initial 10km and it is about 1.4km of vertical.  The next is also within the first half of the race and is about 800m of vertical.  The remaining three, all involving less climbing than the first two hills, are in the last half of the race.  When you look at the elevation profile on the UTMB site, it sort of seems like these are five rolling hills – don’t be misled.

My experience only involved the first three hills, but I didn’t run very much of the uphills, nor did my fellow competitors around me. This was partly to conserve energy that would be required later on, but it also reflected the steepness of the slope.  The trail on these uphills was fairly technical, with some large unformed steps to climb over.

For the first two hills, the downhills were not an issue at all, with fairly gradual flowing descents.  There were some grassy slopes, which became muddy and slippery in my race, coming into the Swiss valleys.  But for the third hill (and I would say the fourth and the fifth) the downhill was also technical. It was difficult for me to run at this point, but I think even a top runner would have struggled to run smoothly on these descents.

This leads me to two conclusions.  First, train on as many hills as you can.  Make sure those hills are as steep and long as possible (within reason) – if you can run them, they are probably not steep enough.  This also means training the downhills and again the steeper the better. Really, for me anyway, this race was about fast-trekking for very long periods of time on steep hills, with the flats and the gentle downhills being almost irrelevant.

Second, get used to using trekking poles.  At least half of the competitors used them.  I had a pair of Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles and they were perfect for the job.  They made a considerable difference for me, not only uphill, but also downhill.  On uphills, they allowed me to recruit my upper body muscles to aid climbing and on the downhills they provided stability which allowed me to move more quickly.  I even used them in the relatively flat or easy sections as they allowed me to develop a rhythm and added stability.  I would say they made 10-15% difference as compared to running without poles.  However, this also meant my shoulders and triceps got a big workout, so I suggest incorporating upper body strengthening into your training.  Some runners used fingerless gloves, I think to avoid chafing on the hands from the pole straps, but that wasn’t an issue for me.  I found this site useful in learning how to use the poles.  The only problem I had was remembering not to leave the poles behind at aid stations!

I was certainly curious about the trails ahead of the race.  They are mainly single track, with a variety of technical (rocks, roots, scree, rutted sections etc), hard packed clay and grassy track.  It can be a bit hard to overtake runners, especially when they are using poles.  But I found pretty much everyone was polite and accommodating when I wanted to pass.  There were also 4WD tracks and some roads to navigate.  The organisers placed distinct ribbons at regular intervals, and spray painted arrows on roads, so it was actually quite straightforward to follow the route, even at night when you could see the ribbons as they had reflective tape on them.

I found there was a good spirit and polite and friendly decorum among runners during the race.  There isn’t a lot of conversation, everyone is pretty tired after the first hill, but there was a fair bit of encouragement particularly in the latter half of the event, when we were all just trying to finish. 

I used my old pair of Salomon Speedcross 3’s for the first half of the race and then changed them to my newer pair of the same model at Champex.  Putting on nice dry shoes (and socks) half way gave me a bit of a lift, but was also a risk mitigation tool as it gave me an alternative if the first pair of shoes was causing me problems.  I find the Speedcross 3’s excellent when it gets muddy and slippery and that was a feature of the 2014 race.  I think you do need a robust set of trail shoes, given the amount of technical trail involved, although there were some sandal and barefoot runners participating.

I have a Salomon 12l running pack, with an internal 1.5l bladder.  The bladder is difficult to fill and, when filled, takes up too much space in the pack for an event like this with so much compulsory gear.  I used two Raidlight 750ml bottles with a flexible valve, which I placed in the pockets on the front straps.  Most runners seemed to be using bottles in the front.  With a little skill you could drink from the valve while still using the poles and they’re easy to fill at aid stations.   

I also think it would be a good idea to do some of your training at night.  I didn’t do this, but I think there are two reasons why it’s worth doing.  First is to get used to the psychological challenge of running when tired and unable to see beyond the beam of your lamp.  I find it hard to assess how significant this was to my race, but it definitely played a part.  Second, get used to using the lamp, the feel of it on your head, fitting it over a beanie, etc.  I used a Petzl Nao and it was very good, casting a strong beam, and was comfortable on my head.  I also had a Petzl E+Lite as my back up, which was tiny but effective if required in case the Nao failed.

I used one of the GPS devices that were available from Nexxtep at the expo.  The devices are about the size of a small cellphone and could be tucked in to the top of my pack.  This allowed my supporters to follow my progress around the course online, which they loved and it became compulsory viewing for those who couldn’t be there in person.  The SMS service is also very helpful for your supporters, particularly those meeting you at Champex as they provide a pretty accurate prediction of your arrival time at each aid station.

It never really got very cold in the 2014 race.  My base layer was a 150gm Icebreaker vest, changing into a similar weight Icebreaker T-shirt at Champex.  These tops are merino wool, which are comfortable even on warm days.  Plus they are a great New Zealand product, so I’m pleased to promote them.  I used arm warmers during the day and rolled them down when it got hotter and up when it got colder. I had a 200gm Icebreaker top for when the temperature dropped at the higher points of the race and as the sun came down.  I changed to a 260gm top at Champex, which was heavier than required this year.

If you have a supporter that will go to Champex to meet you, it is a great idea.  It obviously lifts your spirits to see them, but they can also carry a change of clothing, additional food, little treats etc.  There are no drop bags allowed for the CCC, like there is for the UTMB.  The Champex aid station is very accommodating for these supporters (with only one being allowed per runner).  There is a bus that shuttles supporters between Chamonix and Champex.  This takes about 90 mins to Orsieres, connecting to a 30 mins bus trip to Champex, so it takes a bit of organisation for your supporters.

The aid stations were good and people were very helpful there.  Language barriers were not really any problem.  Water was easily available and a selection of foods.  I moved as quickly as I could through the aid stations.  I used the mandatory cup for soup and then supped that as I started again on the trail.  I took cheese and salami, oranges, bars – any real food that I could to avoid having to dip into my gels – again eating these on the first 300m or so after the aid station or stashing them away until later.

I do wonder whether altitude played a part in my difficulties in consuming food in the later stages of the race.  This is speculation, but it may be that more time acclimatising in the mountains would have been beneficial for me.  I arrived in Chamonix two days before the race.

For me, blisters on my feet were a substantial issue.  I haven’t yet figured out how to prevent this happening, but this is something you should consider as my shoes and socks got quite damp, even on a pretty mild day.

Leading up to the event, I was hungry for information about the CCC or UTMB, the possible conditions, what you should and shouldn’t wear, the trail etc.  I found the personal videos produced by runners in previous years to be helpful.  These can be found on YouTube etc.  I examined them for any and all clues for what to expect.  The shots of the start line were interesting, as that allowed you to survey what a number of other runners that year were wearing, the types of packs they wore, how they dealt with their poles, etc.  Here’s a link to my video.

By the way, I used a Sony TX30, which takes good quality videos and is small, robust and easy to stack in my pack.  I saw some guys carrying Go-pros and more at the finish carrying them through to the finish line (probably picking them up from their supporters on the way in).

On the finish, it was wonderful to see runners coming in with their family and supporters.  Clearly the organisers allow, and probably encourage, this.  I saw some runners coming in with six to eight supporters.  Lots of kids being held in the arms of runners, with their partners running alongside filming the finish, etc.  Prime your supporters to be waiting for you in positions leading up to the finish (say 200m or so out) and then all of you join together in celebrating the finish.  It’s a magical moment, so just go for it, throw away all inhibitions and let it all hang out.

I found surprisingly few sources of helpful information about this race on the web.  There are a lot of reports of the top runners but, interesting as they are, their experiences had little significance for me.  Two sources stood out for me (both from

My race report is here for some further background.

If this is your first long ultra, I would also refer to the Western States site on race preparation, which I think is one of the best sources of credible information around (even though it’s a different race).

Finally, the assistance and support of a great coach and a great massage therapist was indispensible for me.  James Kuegler, at Cadence, provided me with just the programme I needed to prepare as well as I possibly could for the race.  James allowed me to build up sensibly for this race and had me on occasion running less than I wanted to, but that contributed to keeping me sane and largely injury free in the run up to the event.  Rob Matthews, MBE, ironed out the knots in my muscles, which was I think essential for body maintenance in getting ready for an event like this, as well as ample amusement.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc-CCC 2014

The end occurred for me at Trient, rather than Chamonix as intended.  After 72km, 18 hours and 4.3km of vertical climb, I decided I couldn’t keep going.  It’s been a day since then and I have been blessed by the experience of watching runners arriving through the streets of Chamonix, down the little street leading to the church square. 

They are in different states of disrepair, some swaggering as exhaustion nearly takes them over, some energetically sprinting to the line, but the beauty of the joy on their faces is universal.  They arrive with their family and friends joining them on the run to the finish line, national flags held aloft, Go Pro’s taking it all in, fists punching the air, slapping hands, roaring in triumph and bending down to kiss the finish line as their supporters embrace them.  The Japanese runners, with utmost grace, turn at the end and bow.  I think they bow to the trail, to the challenges they have just faced and overcome.  It shows respect for the experience and respect that I share for this great event.

It was hard to watch in some ways.  That could have been me, etc.  I don’t know why I feel this way – it’s only a challenge if there is a risk of not succeeding and for me that risk came to pass.  There really is no shame in that and I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

The race begins with a climb out of Courmayeur, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc.  Through the streets of this little alpine town, through the forest fringes and then up and up and up.  At the start, I speculated with the other runners around me which hill we were supposed to be climbing.  The only ones I could see seemed to touch the sky and it was one of those.  I reached the top of Tete de la Tronche after 3 hours of climbing, 1.4km over 10km. 

It’s hard to comprehend how big these hills are.  I come from a country with mountains and I love the experience of running in the high hills around Central Otago.  But I have never had to do this sort of climbing before.  When steep becomes steeper, when you can’t look up for fear of seeing that you are nowhere near the top, even when you think you must be.  Distraction provided solace – the little mountain flowers, the sounds of streams, the cooling breeze as you reach the higher altitudes.

The trail goes along one side of the valley, with the Mont Blanc massif on the other side.  There are many high peaks in this range, but it was the glaciers that were particularly impressive.  They sat frozen in the valleys, but they look like they should be flowing.  They almost seem like they shouldn’t be there and of course they are fragile and shrinking as temperatures are rising.

The sun was coming out and it was a smooth and undulating valley trail, slightly downhill.  Some Australian walkers were coming in the other direction.  They saw the flag on my race bib and said “Aussie?”.  I replied “Kiwi” and they said “go mate!”.   I was cruising, enjoying the surroundings and eating up the kms.

The next hill was Grand Col Ferret.  Climbing out of the Arnuva aid station and high in the valley, we passed an unlikely group of spectators who were cheering on each runner individually as they came past.  “Allez Olivier”, “allez Georges”, “allez” as they struggled with the pronunciation of my name.  There were not many non-Europeans in the race – about half of the participants were from France and no-one else from NZ.

Heat spots were developing on the soles of my feet and I put plasters on half way up the hill to prevent or forestall blisters.  This was a shorter climb than to Tete de la Tronche, but it seemed equally hard.  Grinding climbing and everyone around me was feeling it.
And then it levelled off and we tumbled down into Switzerland, into the valley of Ferret.  In contrast to the mild conditions in Italy, mist and damp had blown in and the high valley had acted like a net to capture it.  Light rain fell as we traversed down along its flanks.  It seemed so green and lush in comparison to the Italian side. The dings of arriving text messages started as my NZ supporters were getting online and checking my progress. This must have seemed strange to the European runners around me that I was getting text messages in the middle of the night.

We passed through charming picture postcard villages in the valley, before a stiff climb to reach Champex de Lac.   This was the midpoint of the race, at 55km, and your assistant could join you there.  Fi found me and took me away to find a table to get some food and drink.  Looking back, I really wasn’t in great shape at this point.  I stared at the pasta and Bolognese sauce and could only poke at it and the soup and cake seemed completely unappetising.  I knew I needed fuel, but I didn’t want to eat.  I was fussing with minor things and my concentration was wandering. 

The rain was coming down steadily as I exited the tent, now deeply dark as I fumbled with my head torch to get it to work properly.  And then up again.  This hill was only about 400m of vertical, but it seemed as high as the previous two.  The dark doesn’t help as you have no idea really how close you are to the summit.  I would occasionally look up and spot a beam of light from another runner, which indicated I had a way to go.  Sometimes that beam of light seemed impossibly high up and my heart sank as I did the mental calculations of how long and hard it would be to reach that point.  The cow bells eerily rang through the valleys, like siren’s calls.

Every step now was uncomfortable, as the blisters had reached their full potential.  I tried to vary the foot landings to relieve the pressure.  Despite the rain, the air was so dry – my eyes were dry and I was so thirsty.  My breath was shortening and my speed dropped in an attempt to preserve energy.  The descent from La Giete to Trient was a struggle and many runners overtook me.  It was technical, with big drop offs as it steeply descended towards Trient.  My legs were feeling weak as I planned my strategy for the next aid station.  I would go to the medical centre and see what they could do about the blisters and try and get some food down.

I arrived in Trient at 3.15am, surprised that I was only 30 minutes from the cut off time.  I thought I had more time up my sleeve.  After seeing the medical people, I had that moment.  I looked out into the rainy night, weighed it all up and decided my race was over. 

In the lead up to the event, I told myself that there would be moments when you wanted to give up, but that you just had to press on.  I tried to picture myself in those moments and how I would convince my mind to overcome the body.  I knew it would be in the dead of night and that I would be tired and cold.  I prepared with chocolate almond croissants in my bag as rewards for succeeding on keeping going.  That’s fine, but when that moment came, I didn’t feel like pressing on. 

My son Hamish sent me a message during the race with a quote "From all the powers the world enchains, man frees himself when self-control he gains".  That is so true.  I didn’t go into this lightly.  I trained hard for six months and many months before that in build up.  I was focused and prepared.  Blisters were an amateur error in retrospect and, although altitude may have been a factor, I should have found ways to deal with fuel intake and stomach problems. 

I saw it in the eyes of the finishers.  They knew this was a substantial challenge and they had achieved a great feat of human endurance.  I take my hat off to all of them, and to all that, like me, tried but didn’t quite make it.

Here's my video of the day.