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Ultra Trail South West, 2012

Jumping a bit…maybe I will fill in the gaps between the Diagonale des Fous and this one at some point, maybe I won’t.

The UTSW nearly didn’t happen at all for me. To get to the muster point, Newquay, I would fly from Copenhagen to Gatwick on Easyjet, and from Gatwick to Newquay on FlyBe. Almost 2 hours to connect at Gatwick, together with handluggage only (provided EasyJet let me carry it) – I would be fine.

Arriving at the low cost arm of Copenhagen airport, we were advised of a short delay. The aircraft itself appeared to be there, but bad weather at Gatwick was causing long delays. It sounded ominous. Minutes became quarter hours, quarter hours became half hours, an hour…

Eventually we were on, but warned we would probably have to wait some time before the plane was cleared to go. Finally, an hour and 45 minutes late, we were off. If the flight took its scheduled time, I would have 10 minutes to connect at Gatwick – and the reported bad weather made it likely we would be delayed further. I tried not to think about it.

Approaching London, the bad weather was visible. We descended through clouds and sheets of rain, but at least had not lost further time. The doors were open exactly 15 minutes before my next flight was due to depart. I legged it down the back steps and into the terminal, wearing my trainers anyway as I had reasoned that if EasyJet had made me check my bag in, these were the things I did not want to have to replace on the day if the luggage got lost. Through the terminal to immigration – luckily the auto-gates had no queue and my new passport has a chip in it. Through customs, trying to look as though I wasn’t a dodgy bloke legging it. Up to the departurers level; another miracle, no queue at security. An elderly couple wished me luck as I sprinted off, just in time to see the status of my flight turning to ‘closed’ on the overhead boards. Nothing to do but keep running, straight through the waiting area, over a line of chairs and down a never-ending passage towards the gates.

‘What flight are you looking for?’ enquired the girl at the beginning of the FlyBe gates.

‘Newquay,’ I replied, ‘but i think I’m too late.’

‘Just down there on the left,’ she smiled.

I could have kissed her but I would have missed the flight. The door closed behind me and I was on the way to Newquay, bang on time, having run what was probably my fastest mile of the entire weekend already.

See the rest of the race report here

And some more pictures here

Grand Raid de la Reunion – ‘La Diagonale des Fous’ – October 2008

The Diagonal of Fools                   

At 11pm on 23rd October 2008, I lay flat on my back on the gravel at ‘Cap Mechant’ at the south eastern corner of Reunion island. Bruno was to blame – for weeks I had had hundreds of questions – ‘are you ready for it?,’ ‘how do you think you will do?,’ ‘surely you will sleep?’ and so on. My answer to all three and more was ‘I have no idea’ – and I did not. How was I to know if I was in a fit state to race across a volcano, mostly in the dark, on a course 4 times longer than any race I had done and with the equivalent of more than an ascent and descent of Mount Everest, starting from sea level, along the way? I had no idea. I’d barely seen a mountain in training – my highest peak is all of 40 metres above sea level. I would finish, that was not in doubt in my mind – typically 40% of entrants do not – but I had 64 hours to do it and would be happy to walk the whole thing and be done in 63 and a bit.

Bruno had done it before, when the course was a little shorter, in 32 hours. I asked him if he had slept on the way – ‘no, but the last 21km took 7 hours – downhill.’ How could 21km downhill take 7 hours? I can knock off that distance – a half marathon – in an hour and twenty even with a hangover. Like the other questions, I had no idea. I’d done my training over the months – 350km in September alone; over a 3 week period in September and early October I had run the equivalent of 3 marathons each week, getting out of bed, running 20km to work, running home again, laps of the airport island at weekends and so on – though admittedly my longest run had been ‘only’ 53km, and Denmark is not famous for its mountains to practice on.

My full (illustrated) race report is here

And the rest of the photos are here

Ascending the 'Rampart des Basalts' after dawn on Day 1

Ascending the ‘Rampart des Basalts’ after dawn on Day 1

One day I’ll do it again.

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The Jungfrau Marathon, September 2008

Jungfrau Marathon Website

CIMG0099

I got a place in this one 3 or 4 weeks before the start – entry had closed but I entered a draw to get one of 10 extra places in August. 3 weeks later, not sure what I was letting myself in for, I arrived in Interlaken for my first mountain marathon. As I had entered my first really long run the next month, I figured this would at least give me a taste of what to expect when heading into the mountains.

Technically speaking for the purists it’s a road run of 26km followed by a mountain rising some 1800m over the last 16km. Whatever – it’s a stunning course. I ended up in 4 hours 13 minutes, though reckon under 4 would have been possible. Placed 228th out of 5000 or so isn’t bad, especially when most of the runners are Swiss whereas I have to practice in mountain-freee Denmark. Being my first Alpine run I held back a little, and despite having registered twice since, have never made it back for another go.

One day I will  – it has a fantastic atmosphere, with bands all over the place (one of which we ended up with in a bar in town in the evening; a small pub with a 20 piece brass band is quite something). Great Swiss mountain trains transport your supporters along the course, with text messages to let them know where they can catch you next. They even get you back dowen to Interlaken at the end! It’s also superbly organised, with rail vouchers included in the entry fee so you can get from any Swiss airport to Interlaken.

I never got round to writing it up properly, but there are a few pictures here

Mountain path after Wixi

‘Helvede I Nord’ – ‘Hell in the North’ – 24th March 2008

Helvede i Nord back in 2008 was my first trail run – a half marathon on Easter Monday, which I have done every year since, though never in such wintry conditions. Here’s the write up from the time.

As the train went north from Copenhagen it became clear that this was not going to be an ordinary half marathon. In town, the mercury had crept above 0 overnight – however north of about Lyngby, the ground whitened and by the time we arrived at Hillerød – the end of the line – snow was lying deep and crisp and even. Taking the small local train from there through the forest to just short of Tisvileje, the scene was just how you’d expect a Scandinavian winter scene to look – snow all over the place, coating each branch and the forest floor. I arrived at the start, 1 and a half hours north of Copenhagen, with 40 minutes to go and lots of heavily clad runners were wondering how long they could keep as much of their cladding on as possible.

The start itself was a few hundred metres from the meeting point, at the entry into the forest. I took a short jog along a main-ish looking path – it was slippery and covered in hard packed snow as everyone else had been trying out along that path too. It was clear that there would be an advantage to be near the front, where it would be possible to run on fresh snow. I lined up pretty well at the front row, though with some reservations – having never run a half marathon ‘off road’ before, I was not sure whether my usual pace – or whatever its equivalent was – would hold. I need not have worried.

We were off – along a gentle downhill single track road to lull everyone into a false sense of security. The first KM was a fast 3:48 – to finish in an hour and a half you need to average 4:16. 4:00 in the second KM, all seemed fine.

Somewhere around that point we were thrown at the first hill. Hills in Denmark are not very big – the country’s highest point is somewhere around the 150m mark – but they can be steep. The course was partly on ‘roads’ – single track forest roads, with 3 – 4 inches of snow on top of loose sand. One of the trickier surfaces to run on and I was glad to be near the front – I estimated somewhere in the top 30 or so. From about 2km onwards the ‘roads’ alternated with sections of path – in places reasonably defined and in others totally off all usual tracks. A favourite of the organisers seemed to have been that, in places where the path followed the bottom of a valley, to lead you straight up the side and along the rather more undulating ridge, before plunging down again and having to take a 90 degree bend at the bottom as you hurtled down between the trees on a snow-covered track wide enough for one person. It was massively entertaining.

The tracks brought us right into the forest and over several small, steep hills. By about the 7km mark I was running at the back of a group of 4 – well a strung-out-over-50-metres group of 4. I’d looked at the very vague map beforehand and it seemed as though the second half should be somewhat easier in terms of gradient, apart from a couple of long hills at 16km and just before19km. I overtook the 3rd in the group and caught the 2nd, then the first – though I hadn’t had them as targets, rather they seemed to just fall away quietly. I didn’t see any of the 4 until the finish, and from 10km onwards ran in pretty well glorious solitude through the monochrome world of the forest under snow. The paths were marked in places with arrows on A4 sized yellow boards, and more frequently with red and white plastic tape tied around trees. From time to time there would be someone standing at an intersection, particularly where one of the ‘main roads’ was left or arrived at, or at some of the places where the forest paths were truly indistinct. I guessed I was somewhere in the top 20 or so, and not having too many footprints to follow was grateful for one particular ‘usher,’ who directed me down a very concealed path to the left.

With footsteps deadened by snow and no other runners in sight it was a delightful race. From time to time when on a wider or straighter path, you could see the runner in front, maybe 200 metres -. Then a few minutes later you’d see him again – 50 metres in front. The next time 100 metres. We were chasing each other over snow-covered hillocks on a long-distance cross country run, fleetingly visible to each other. Ducking under low branches, vaulting over fallen trees. At 14km we came to the beach and ran up and down along the dunes; one runner overtook me here and I had no idea where he came from – I hadn’t seen anyone beyond me for a couple of kilometres. Just after 15km onto the beach itself – running in heavy snowfall along the narrow strip of clear sand by the water. 2 or 3 runners were visible through misty light, a couple of dog-walkers, and the small group of officials showing the way off the beach just prior to the 16km mark.

Off the beach, past a photographer, and up a steep hill where a small group of spectators were on hand to encourage you up the last bit. The hill was so steep it had steps – though these were of course totally obscured by the snow, so I just kept going as best I could. Not many footprints in the snow – I was somewhere in the top 20 for sure. From around here I was playing cat and mouse with a ‘Sparta’ runner who had followed me along the beach. At the top of the ‘16km hill’ he was right behind me, I could hear his breathing. It seemed that he was a good climber, though whenever we were on a downhill or level stretch I would pull away. I did that up to KM 17 – where for a few hundred metres the path merged with the ’10.8km route’ – and the stragglers from that course. It was good that this merging of courses only lasted a few hundred metres as it was not so pleasant running on paths that were either getting slushy or hard-packed with snow. It was uphill and I enjoyed flying past the tail-enders, up a steep section, until finally the 21km course curved away down a glade to the right. I drew well ahead of the Sparta runner, though he closed the gap on the ‘19km hill’ – of which I had overheard a couple of people speaking before the race. We overtook 2 people on the way up, though I was not sure if they were in the race or not, and by the time we reached the top, and were directed down a steep hill to the left, he was again on my tail. Down we went – I opened out and hurtled down the narrow path until a point where I slid on something (snow presumably?) and went flying head first down the path – the landing was luckily quite soft, I jumped to my feet and, finding myself still a good 10 metres in front of the Sparta guy, took off again, taking the steep right hand corner at the 20km mark and the last km turned out to be my fastest by a wide margin – fairly level and ending with a few hundred metres on tarmac into town. Another runner was making a fast finish and he overtook, though I myself caught the runner who had overtaken me just before the beach and managed something approaching a sprint finish. I shook hands with the Sparta runner, who finished about 10 seconds behind, and after taking on some water headed straight for the coffee and hotdogs. It was still snowing – my first off-road, snow bound half marathon finished in 1 hour 34 minutes and 27 seconds, and I later found out I was 12th out of 393. Pretty respectable!

Split times on the next page, also compared to my best over this distance which was last September – on a flat course I’d be about the same now as I was then. Whereas on my best run I managed between 3:41 and 3:57 per KM, here I did between 3:35 and 5:45 per KM – and did not stop to walk at any point! The effect of the hills pretty clear…

It was good to see my fastest km by some margin was the last one.

Split times

Record Sept 2007 This run
KM1 3:41 3:48
KM2 3:54 4:00
KM3 3:50 4:16
KM4 3:53 5:34
KM5 3:49 4:40
KM6 3:55 4:08
KM7 3:52 4:38
KM8 3:52 4:21
KM9 3:46 4:20
KM10 3:48 3:54
KM11 3:50 4:51
KM12 3:47 3:59
KM13 3:49 4:10
KM14 3:55 4:51
KM15 3:50 4:18
KM16 3:55 5:43
KM17 3:55 4:16
KM18 3:57 5:45
KM19 3:53 4:06
KM20 3:52 4:44
KM21 3:50 3:35
Last 97m 0:21 0:22

Fastest 3:41 3:35
Slowest 3:57 5:45