Tuesday, 3 March 2020


Running is perfect for exploring. It's slow enough that you have time to take in the surroundings (especially if it's an ultra you're doing), yet it's fast enough to progress through multiple environments within a single outing, and hence to see lots of different stuff over the course of a few hours, or half a day,.. or so.

So what better way to explore Costa Rica than a six-day stage race down the west coast. Voilà the reasoning behind a February trip to Central America; a race entry to The Coastal Challenge, combined with a family holiday in a wonderful part of the world that we'd not explored before!

Stage 1:
I was told to watch out, "it would be hot". And these were indeed wise words of wisdom! But honestly, who listens to wise words of wisdom, eh? Feeling confident, I went out at "morning run" pace; 3:50/km should be ok, it's flat. We quickly found ourselves together in a group with Mauricio Méndez (Xterra world champ) and César Lizano (Costa Rican Olympic marathon runner, competing in the short distance event at TCC). Perfect. Perfect until,.. BAM!! heat explosion!

10km or so later,... first Mauricio slowed and backed off, in a (sensibly) controlled manner, then a little later, I heat-bonked in a (not so sensibly) uncontrolled manner. The first stage rapidly switched from race-mode to survival-mode!

After the long fire-roads, the jungle section and the river crossings at the end of the stage were more than welcome!

Stage 2:
Today was a chase. 2km into the stage we (leading group of 5) missed a turn. The Costa Rican chap (Eric) a couple of meters behind us didn't miss it, and he subsequently held on throughout the day to most of the 10-minutes he gained at this early junction. Until the last 10km of beach running, where Cody and I reeled a few minutes back. This was to set the pecking order for the majority of the race.

Over the next few days Cody and I would share most of the days' trail-time.

Which included stretches of beach running.

And a few communal baths.

Not forgetting to wash your face.

Is this a run or a walk?

Look up!

We'd run together before with Cody, but on totally different terrain - in Sky races across Norway and Italy!

Stage 3:
Today had an excellent first hour or so. No farting around on footpaths, we ran straight up the riverbed. Nice!

Finishing with a waterfall crossing: Power shower!

This was followed by some less-wet and some less-cool sections on hard, earthy trail. Little respite from the scortchio sun on these sections.

Mauricio was unfortunately having problems with a tendon in his foot, and he subsequently dropped out.

Meanwhile I look the opportunity to wash my hair.

And my face.

There was some more beach running at the end. Again, sharing this section with Cody made it a little easier.

Stage 4:
Quite a lot of fire road today. A big climb, some rolling stuff and then a nice downhill through lush jungle at the end.

Eric refused to walk, pretty much irrespective of the steepness of the trail!

Meanwhile Cody was bulking up his biceps with a kilo of fluid in the palm of each hand. Don't arm-wrestle him next week!

Putting that hand-on-knees fell running technique to good use!

I was feeling pretty good again today. Much much better today than I had done on day 1, with that ridiculous, self-inflicted, early heat explosion. However my ever-dodgy right quadriceps were not having much of a ball at all. Heavy and unresponsive. Which made the more techy stuff on the final downhill tricky. It was globally a very bad week for my right leg, which unfortunately turned out to be the critical factor limiting speed, along with the climatic conditions.

The monkeys were making a right racket on that final decent!

Stage 5:
Today was another long one! And it was to be my off-day. Wiped out and suffering from a dodgy tummy from the start (over-indulging on the delicious pineapple on offer?!), I had to battle alone all day today, whilst Cody made his move on Eric and got the big lead he'd been working up for over the last few days.

To get to the start we all jumped on a barge. Powered by a speed boat, attached with some string and propelled by one very small motor. This barge also transports cars, buses,...

Hold that head together!

Returning from the sea, after the estuary crossing, by rowing boat.

The parrots were good company, as we rounded the final headland into Drakes Bay.

Stage 6:
The last day was nice. A very enjoyable (and short!) loop, with some nice jungle, rivers and beach running (but not too much beach running!).

The podium was made. Cody had a comfortable lead, Eric was a safe second and I was in third. The order wasn't likely to change, so today was to be fully enjoyed!

Is this how you do it, Otter?

We spent longer than usual cooling in the streams we found en-route today and finally we finished together with Eric and Cody, on the beach back in Drakes Bay.

Photo credit : Ian Corless

Saturday, 7 September 2019

UTMB 2019

This would be my third run at the utmb, after a dnf in 2016 and a 16th place in 2017. In my mind I wanted to improve on those two previous runs and ideally get a top ten position... But ultra running is a bit of a gambling process, with which runners can associate as much joy as they can deception and frustration... At the utmb, never count your chickens before the eggs have hatched!

Here's how this year's great-big-silly-walk went for me, split into six stages:

1. The start and the "warm up" run to Contamines
The start is just nuts. This year I found myself positioned on the start-line right behind two moustache-clad Americans. These guys have a bit of a reputation! I joked to Xavier that this was not ideal positioning, - they were not necessarily the most conservative runners to follow on the rolling trails down to Les Houches,... He reassured me that at least we'd very quickly have plenty of space in front of us. True.
2. A night in Italy
The weather was perfect this year. Which meant we could go right through the night wearing just a singlet. No faffing around with jackets and gloves! The night section takes you through some remote valleys of Italy, and it's a joy to experience. Legs are still good at this stage, and it's quite unique to run all night long, under the stars. At times it's not easy to differentiate between the headtorches further up the hillside and the stars above. Where is the limit between land and sky? I spotted a shooting star on the way up Col de la Seigne. I presumed that wasn't a flying runner, although it could have been Pau Capell?..
3. Dawn breaks and we wake to sore legs
When the sun rises it's spectacular. The first rays of light illuminate the southern flanks of Mont Blanc. However, it's also at this stage, approximately 100km in, that my quadriceps started to communicate that they'd already been going for 12-hours, - would it be much longer? The reply I gave them was "yes"!
4. The last 3-peaks marathon
When you arrive in Champex it feels like you've got the bulk of the course under your belt. It's here that you can entertain thoughts of finishing. That said, it's still a long way to go - about a "normal" trail race distance left, in fact. The difference being that you're starting these last 45km / 3000mD+ with a warm-up jog of approximately 125km / 7000mD+. Which makes for a rather long warm-up. So now a game of psychology commences.. Your legs tell you they hurt. You try to think of something else. Your legs tell you they hurt. You try to persuade yourself that it doesn't matter. Your legs tell you they hurt. And it goes on like this for around six hours. And this is the essence of ultra running!! :-)
5. The finish
Oh wow, what a nice feeling! All that agony is well worthwhile after all! 22+ hours of blood, sweat and tears for 5-minutes of high-fiving!! haha! No, seriously... The finish line in Chamonix can be an emotional one. And I can see why. Running (and walking) one hundred miles is one hell of a feat, and it sure feels good to complete that challenge. It's a scary and an ambitious thing to contemplate, running all day long (or for some people - two days long), so to get round is understandably highly satisfying! In any case, I was happy to make more of a success of it on this, my third attempt at the distance. Enjoy the moment (because tomorrow you'll be in pain again)!
high-fiving into Chamonix, in 5th position / photo: jan nyka
6. The aftermath
Ultra-running is a very faffy version of running. What's particularly appealing about running is its simplicity. Shoes, vests, shorts,... go! Ultra-running is a different kettle of fish. This year I improved my feeding strategy by integrating ham risottos, sweet-potato and roast chicken purées, rice puddings,... and these I conveniently housed in my soft flasks. Which was all very well and nice and practical... until it comes to washing up!!