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I am European

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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Do you remember in 1997 when the Blair government swept into power and it filled the country with hope. Do you remember? We talked of tolerance, building great things, a global, connected UK, part of something bigger with our European partners but owning special relationships that would cement our post as a leader on the world stage.

Do you remember this?

I’m not saying it was all rosy, far from it. The invasion of Iraq will always be considered something of difficult point from this period and the Labour move right gave too much power to those who believe that ‘Greed is Good’. But it was an interesting time that was underpinned by attempts to move the UK forward in devolution, into a 21st century knowledge based economy and into an important global state punching well above our weight.

I entered adulthood at the beginning of this period and am grateful for it because all that I’ve built personally came out of my belief in the UK and its future. 

I roll forward less than a decade and I see the mess that the UK has driven itself toward. How did we become a country so inward looking? How did we hand over the reigns of our country to those that will govern for the few? When did reality television and beauty pageants permeate our politics? I’m not blaming one political party – they’re all pretty manky but we’re now at crunch time again.

I spent my weekend poring over the manifestos of the main parties that I might consider voting for and some I’d be unlikely to vote for. I was looking for the things that I could be confident will make a difference to the future of myself, my family, my country and our place in the world.

The truth is that all the major political parties concern me, the Tories look set to further turn the thumbscrews in the UK on all but the rich and powerful. Labour are struggling to break down a perception of ineptitude and the smaller parties carry no weight.

Castle MaySkull might be saying it’s taking nothing for granted but her manifesto says she is very much taking votes for granted assuming that the grey vote and the leave voters will simply agree to her need for an iron fist in the battle with the EU. Sadly though when you drill down into the Conservative or Team May manifesto it look out of ideas and is just too vague. I wonder who would be fooled by this?

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that when our backs are against the wall we aren’t all in it together, are we Theresa? 

On the opposite side we have Labour this time with some really interesting ideas but they are beset by the problem of a leadership that looks unelectable.

However, they’re the only party that says it, ‘will guarantee no rises in income tax for those earning below £80,000 a year, and no increases in personal National Insurance Contributions or the rate of VAT’. Can Labour really do this and protect the income of those that need it most?

They believe they can commit to their manifesto spending promises in ways other than raising personal tax, corporation tax seems a good start and let’s be honest there are a couple of projects they could probably bin to help them achieve it (HS2 anyone? Although I like the idea of a northern Crossrail).

The Labour manifesto actually looks like it was written for everybody and while people will quiz the numbers (even an old Trotskyist like me isn’t 100% sold on the numbers) this is a manifesto designed to give hope.

The question is can Team Corbyn win over the doubters or at least hold back a Tory landslide, because May went to the polls to wipe Labour out and win back the UKIPpers and if that doesn’t happen then what does that say about her position?

As for the Liberal Democrats, well they might as well be offering unicorns for votes, the manifesto has interesting ideas, tax rises, student maintenance grants and of course the second referendum on the deal the UK is offered on leaving the EU. However, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to trouble the UK electorate greatly and therein lies the problem with them. People don’t trust them and as a consequence people may not vote for them.

So what does it come down to for me? Well I had originally been very conflicted over this election, concerned by Labour, appalled by the Conservatives and underwhelmed by the Liberal Democrats.

However, having read the bulk of the manifestos I’m confident that the best of the options is the vision being put forward by Labour. No it’s not perfect and in an ideal world I’d have another option – one that was steadfastly against the stupidity of leaving Europe but that option doesn’t exist. I’m still disgusted at the EU referendum result and I still hugely disappointed in the Labour/Corbyn level of support for remaining in the EU. But I have to support a Labour manifesto at this election because the other options are simply too terrifying to contemplate.

And if I want to be part of Europe? Well maybe I’ve got to stand myself at some point – no point bleating on if you’re unwilling to get your hands dirty.

But…

What am I asking you to do? I’d urge you all to ensure you register to vote, I’d urge you all to listen carefully to the words of politicians, read their manifestos and when you get the chance, question them.

Too many broken promises from all sides have been made and look at the UK now, it wasn’t the EU that made this mess – it was us and a succession of lying, cheating governments. I do care who you vote for because I have an opinion but all I can ask of you is that you make the most informed decision that you can. 

Forget party lines, look at yourself, your family, your work and everyone else’s situation and select the option that will give all of us a better, fairer quality of life.

And if you think that Theresa May and her vision will do that then god* help us all.

*Other fictional characters are available.

Let’s talk about the run up to Haria Extreme before we get into the nuts and bolts;

  • You’ve run three times since August Bank Holiday
  • You’ve been unable to run since 29 September – (the Vegan Challenge was a reckless mistake)
  • Injury was causing enough concern that you weren’t sure you’d start Haria Extreme
  • Pre-race prep severely hampered by circumstances beyond your control
  • There was more than 3,000 metres of steep climb across 102km
  • …and unsurprisingly you retired from the race
  • however, this was not a failure – far from it

Now the question is, ‘when is retiring from a race not a failure?’ The answer, for me, lies in the thoughts I’ve put together over the last week while bimbling around Lanzarote post race. The journey to HE begins where so many things have done – in my failure at the CCC, while I was in France I came across the HE stall and said to myself that looks like the most brilliant piece of cool and I have to do it. The problem was that it was in November last year and I was already committed to running the SainteLyon. However, HE has stayed in my memory since that day and when applications opened in about April I was first on the list.

Yes please sign me up for your newly enhanced, hillier and longer route, I said with an undeserved air of confidence.

In truth my running had been going pretty well all year and I had good reason to be confident, Green Man, Skye Trail Ultra, Vanguard Way, Country to Capital, Brutal Enduro had all been completed and pretty well – but the wheels started to come off at The Ridgeway when I DNF’d over some severe chaffing and it got worse when my disagreement with the GingaNinja turned into a full blown retirement from running and by the time I was going again I then found a nasty new injury to give me a kicking. That calf injury needed severe physiotherapy, lots of rest and no running – in fact no exercise as there was a point that it was too painful to walk on. With days quickly rolling by I cold see HE slipping from my grasp – I was pretty devastated.

With two weeks before the race I took part in the SVN Vegan Day Challenge and tortured myself round the route, looking back on it with a little common sense I should have realised that this was not a good idea but I needed to test the calf problems and although they held up on the day they never felt very good and the days after the race were some of the most pain I’ve ever been in.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

We arrive to the day before the flight (Wednesday) and I’m rushing round like a blue arsed fly trying to ensure that everything for the flight, the race and the family holiday were all complete and that it would all be super smooth when we arrived at the airport at 3.30am. Little did I realise that this would be a monumental disaster with UltraBaby, the GingaNinja and I making the flight with mere seconds to spare, it wasn’t helped that the support we received from Special Assistance for our disabled companion was pathetic and so the trip and the race were off to a stinking start.

We arrived exhausted, aching, grumpy and in my case the physical exhaustion came from lugging around the huge amount of luggage we had needed to transport to support an ultra runner, a 2 year old toddler and a disabled traveller – I could really feel my lack of base fitness from the lack of exercise in the previous few months (and this worried me). However, unpacked (roughly) we headed up to Haria to collect my race number and take a look around the event.

There was no doubt that my mood improved but my worries refused to abate, looking again at the race profile and steep climbs it involved had me very concerned. On the positive side number collection was very easy – passport was checked for ID, collected my number and got hold of a giant set of HE kit (compression shirt, compression arm sleeves, neck gaiter and head band – all very high quality). This was a very welcome bonus and for just €30 I added a lurid yellow hooded top which will brighten any cold winter UK day.

The race village didn’t have much in the way of people selling kit but there were a few bits and actually it was all very low key and rather delightful, there was also the live local Canarian musicians which I felt was something a little special for a race that was starting to feel a little ‘buzzy’. I had feared that this would be another UTMB type race but all appearances seemed to be suggesting that this had a much smaller, niche feel to it and I felt vindicated in my decision to run this over attempting TransGranCanaria earlier in the year.

With number collected, Friday was left as a family day and the holiday could finally begin and I enjoyed a day doing swimming, watching animals and generally running riot with my daughter at a number of bits and pieces we had identified and we even dipped our feet for some splashing into the pool at the villa we had hired via AirBnB.

Friday evening though was used to fine tune my kit, Oxsitis bag rather than Ultimate Direction – Ronhill top rather than La Sportiva and Lone Peak 3.0 over Olympus 2.0 – it took quite some time to make final decisions but the biggest choices were in leg wear and nutrition.

For leg wear I selected the excellent Raidlight Freetrail (longer length but very lightweight shorts in a delightfully ridiculous colourway with stupid typography on them – full review to follow). I teamed these with raidlight tights and runderwear pants to maximise my comfort in the heat (just incase there was a repeat of the R86 chaffing nightmare).

Nutrition though was a very different matter – I had chosen to bring Tailwind with me but having never used it I was somewhat worried about how I might react so in typical fashion I had both Tailwind and real food options with me (lots of chocolate). I knew that I didn’t want to pollute my main water supply so my bladder had to remain free of tailwind, instead I carried two 150ml soft bottles that I could easily store in the small waist pockets of the Freetrail shorts. This was the perfect way to take Tailwind for me.

The race
Anyway, the race itself was a 7am kick off to maximise the Canarian daylight. We were due to start out from ‘Timanfaya’ the volcanic national park with the last remaining active Lanzarote volcano. We pulled into the car park at about 6.30am and saw the runners and supporters lining the dark sand and lava gravel track. It was quite a sight next to the huge herd of camels that also lined up alongside them.

I drifted over to the toilet block which was located inside the normally bustling tourist cafe but at this time it was simply a very long queue of runners. I opted not to wait and would hope that the first checkpoint had a toilet stop as I was rather in need. I rejoined the GingaNinja and UltraBaby for the 10 or 12 minutes before the race began and we admired the camels, the sea of volcanic rock and the sunrise – it was all suitably spectacular.

At a slightly later than expected 7.15 the sound issuing us off was given and about 200 hardy souls set off at a fair old whack down into the unknown. For the first 5km we thundered along a rocky and sandy track through the national park – admiring the amazing geology as we went. I unfortunately was allowing myself to be caught up in the moment and being dragged along at a pace that really didn’t suit. However, within a couple of kilometres I settled into myself and looking round realising this would be no follow the leader – you were out there on your own.

At about 5km we turned out of the core Timanfaya National Park and entered the broader volcanic area which I had hoped would make for easier going on the feet but as the gritty sand slipped around your feet you knew this was going to be hard work.

What I hadn’t expected was the ground to be so varied, there was of course the gritty dark remains of lava and black sand but there was also huge swathes of pebbles, big rocks, slippery rocks, jagged rocks, basically lots of rocks. There was no nice easy Kent countryside trail here but thankfully the Lone Peak 3.0 were the right choice for the job and my feet felt well protected from the elements.

I started the first of the ascents after some off-roading through what looked like a well pruned back Canarian vineyard and then into the first serious descent where I allowed myself the opportunity of a bit of respite and I flew to the bottom knowing that the next ascent was several hundred rocky metres and I would need all due care to navigate this. ‘Surely not all the ascents could be like this?’ I asked myself as the track disappeared and we were left to find our own path amongst the course markings. But with every ascent there is a matching descent and here I thrust myself forward once more. This time I was lurching left and left through a vineyard – no trail specifically, just the tracks of my fellow runners. With each step I could feel the black gravel being kicked up behind me and I was grateful for my gaiters which kept the stones and sand to a minimum.

Through the vineyard I passed and by a volunteer who cheered ‘bravo’ and I offered a cheery wave with a solid ‘grassy arse’. In the distance I could see the checkpoint and so with as much energy as I could I bolted to the stopping point.

All the volunteering points were excellent although there wasn’t much English spoken and there were a lot of very competent 15 year olds manning them. I did ask if there was a toilet in my best Spanglish ‘whereas are ass los toiletos por favour’. They smiled politely and told me ’20 kilometres’. I assumed they meant checkpoint 2, it turns out they simply hadn’t understood my brilliant piece of linguistics.

The problem was I was now about 10 miles in with an urgent need for the toilet. Looking around offered no immediate solutions as there was no cover whatsoever – Haria Extreme was pretty exposed and I had no intention of exposing myself here. So onward I moved, taking things sensibly as the day began to warm up. I refuelled at the previous stop on Pepsi and refilled my Tailwind bottles and actually my energy reserves where holding our pretty well. Pushing through the next 10 or 12km was relatively easy despite my urgent need for the loo and as I crossed the car park into checkpoint 2 I grabbed more Pepsi and took the opportunity to admire the view. Although I was clearly near the back of the field I felt that this was being sensible – I knew the heat would be an issue and f I could make it into night then I’d be much more able to make up time on the people in front of me.

With these thoughts in my head I bade the checkpoint ‘adios’ and moved on – in the distance I could see a big hill but I could also see some cover. I therefore looked back about a kilometre and realised I was alone for at least a few minutes and found a discreet cave in which to deliver the problem child I had been carrying for more than 25km – I was very relieved. After quickly rearranging myself I pressed on through a slightly greener Lanzarote but then I realised I hadn’t seen a route marker for quite a while, I checked with Suunto, I was off course.

Ah.

I looked back and could clearly see that there were no route markers nearby – I therefore retraced my steps, after about ten minutes of running I saw a man a couple of hundred metres higher than me at the top of the hill. I was probably about another kilometre back away from finding the point at which the rise started and so I looked up, a near vertical climb – probably 200 metres. I dug in and I climbed. I remember that I refused to stop, I refused to look down and I refused to give up even when my breathing was heavy and hard I was determined to continue and then I reached the summit to be greeted by a volunteer who was pointing me in the right direction.

‘Wrong way!’ I exclaimed. He had clearly watched me climb the vertical and offered me a pat on the back as I ran beyond him.

The route was unrelenting and when it wasn’t punishing you with ascents and descents it was looking for cracks in your kit to place stones, sand and general pain and the road to checkpoint three was no less so.

The interesting thing about HE and in particular the road to Soo) was that you could tell where the checkpoints were long before you reached them because they were found in the towns dotted around the island – which were often isolated pockets of life. As I banged on down to sea level and on to the thick hot white sand I could see my next stop and I knew that my family were waiting for me.

I made my into the town and drifted over to UB who ran towards me with arms outstretched and a stone, presumably for nutrition. A runner sat on the side of the road looked miserable as he had clearly DNF’d but the GN told me I was looking good and that I wasn’t actually that far behind a number of runners. I stopped here for a few minutes to have a mental uplift but then it was back off and on the way to Famara.

This was a tough section for me as it represented the hottest temperatures of the day but I’d been drinking consistently and the route here although hard going through tricky roads and soft sand allowed me to pick up the pace a little. I realised as I was running along that I’d never run in sand before and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience as it finally found a way into my shoes but any problems my feet faced were offset by the bevy of topless and naked ladies who lined parts of this section of the route. I swear I tried not to stare but I’m only human and this wasn’t some British nudist colony this was wave after wave of the beautiful people. I felt somewhat self conscious, especially when a very naked lady walking towards me with her (I’ll assume) husband cried ‘bravo, bravo’. I mean seriously where do you look in that situation? Anyway I thanked them for their good wishes and pressed on.

In the distance I could see the next climb ‘Lomo Cumplido’ which in my head was reading like some form of oral sex act but was actually instead a straight up 600metre climb, this was what I had come for. I wasted no time at checkpoint 4 other than to revitalise my stock of Tailwind and drink about a pint of Pepsi. Still feeling pretty good I began to climb and in the distance I could see runners coming towards me – runners who had decided enough was enough. I wished them well, but wondered what had driven back these very fit looking men from ascending this rock? I made surprisingly good time to the top, stopping only periodically to either drink in the view or rebalance myself and calm down (I’m terrified of heights). As I reached the top I rested on my Poles and thought about how much better a runner I was this time round compared to when I attempted the CCC.

It dawned on me at the top of this monster that I was still very much in the learning phase of running big inclines, descents and bloody big mountains. It was in this moment that I realised that however far I got today I had made significant progress.

I took a moment to check my messages as I had asked the GN to supply me with a list of all the cut-off times for the checkpoints and then I nearly had a heart attack… I was less than an hour from the checkpoint cut-off. I hurried along the ridge as fast as my body would carry me, facing my fear of heights with every step. I stopped at the mini checkpoint and said hello to the people there but quickly strode on to reach the full checkpoint a further 1.5km along.

I stopped here for mere seconds before realising I needed to bag some time or the sweeper would catch me. Zoom, zoom – this was a significant downhill section and I was able to use my sure footedness to power through the loose rocks and gather some much needed time. But it was now getting darker and I didn’t want to stop to grab my head torch and so lit my way along the coast with iPhone. Not the best light for making swift progress but it sufficed and I knew the GN and UB would be waiting for me again.

I ignored the checkpoint other than saying ‘hola’ and instead asked the GN to get my head torch out, I dumped my GoPro and other equipment I no longer needed with her – kissed the family goodbye and insisted I would make the next checkpoint. What I did say about my situation though was that I had cut myself on my shin quite unpleasantly and that my injured calf was sending shooting pains through my leg and both of these combined where making running painful. The good news though was that I had made up time on the clock and I was ahead by more than 90 minutes rather than the 40 minutes I had going spare at the previous stop.

If I could hold my leg together and the next section wasn’t too tough I might make it through. BOOM, onwards – foot straight into the sea! But thankfully the LP3.0 repelled this nicely. With the wrong mental head on this could have been disasterous but not so soon after seeing my family and with the aid of some local children I found my way through the wasteland of the town and crept bent double under the bridge tunnels, more suited to rats than runners!

Then up again.

On paper this section looks easy and filled with lovely respite but in reality it’s a ballbreaker, the climb is hard, unforgiving and filled with loose rocks and undergrowth that simply rip you apart. This was the section that drained my spirit and when the sweeper caught up to me I admit I became a little dispirited – despite him being clear that I was more than 2 hours ahead of the cut off. I was now gaining on people but I was done, I had maybe 5km to think this through but I knew I had come to Haria Extreme and achieved more than I thought I would.

As we passed through the end of the clambering section here the sweeper called out to me ‘bravo’. He didn’t seem the jokey type and so took him at his word as we had made really quite good time and so when we ran into the checkpoint I asked for ‘cinqo minutos’ to go through my thoughts.  I sat down for the first time in about 12 hours with a little under 10 hours remaining and 23km to go. I rubbed my calf a little while the checkpoint staff tried to force watermelon down my throat but I knew that I’d damaged my calf enough to not want to risk it further.

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I went over to my companion of the last few kilometres and said ‘I’m retiring and it’s okay – I’m good, I’m happy’ and I was. I had turned up to Haria Extreme with the hope I would make it to the start line, once I got there I hoped I wouldn’t crap myself somewhere in the first 25km, I hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself and I hoped I would make it beyond 50km or running. Obviously I hoped I would finish and I didn’t but that’s okay because the experience of Haria Extreme has given me a tremendous confidence boost ahead of MIUT and I know what I need to do to ensure I finish that race.

Key points

  • Distance: 102km
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: November 2016
  • Location: Lanzarote
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Technical trail, rocky, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was amazing – I can’t praise it enough, from the start in Timanfaya through vineyards and across rocky ascents this had everything. It’s tough too but not impossible and had I been even a little bit fit then this would have been much easier than I have made it look. That’s not to say it is easy though because it really isn’t, it will fight you every single step of the way and just when you get comfortable it will throw up amazing challenges. Brilliant!

Organisation
The organisation is always going to be slightly more difficult to analyse as a foreigner but information was communicated in good time, translations were decent and GPX files and all the other pre-race material was handled very well. In Haria itself number collection was easy and there were lots of English speakers available. It felt friendly but also a little local rather than a huge international race. The other really nice thing was that there was a range of races and distances so if you fancied a marathon or a half marathon or even a 10km there was something for everyone. (And the good news) each route had been clearly and concisely thought out.

Support
Aid stations were suitable for the race but the only food was fruit (which for me was a bit useless) but there was cola, water and electrolytes at every aid station. Most aid stations had at least one English speaker but where there wasn’t one I had a real laugh with the guys trying my best Spanish!

Awards
The real reason I rolled up to the race wasn’t the medal or the route it was the experience and the experience was amazing. I suppose its lucky I didn’t roll up for the medal given that I didn’t get one

Value for money
Incredible value for money, lots of lovely freebies, lots of great experience moments – yes the aid stations were not exactly brilliantly stocked with lovely houmous, breads and Canarian potatoes but I can forgive that given the brilliance of everything else. The race cost about £60 (exchange rate is difficult to judge at the moment) and there are 10km races in the UK that cost this, believe me this is much better than any 10km you’ll run.

Conclusion
There are races and there are races – this is one of the latter. Haria Extreme is a race I would do year in and year out if it were closer to home – instead I’ll simply consider going back in a few years to ensure that I finish it. My experience, as you can probably tell, was one of absolute delight given that I didn’t think I had it in me to start never mind get to 80km. Basically, you can’t go wrong with Haria Extreme it does have everything and if you decide to seek out a lovely low key but spectacular race this will not disappoint.

Good luck and enjoy those hills.

 


What kind of world do you really want?

One ruled by a Putin or a Trump or both? Businesses run by people like Philip Green? Weak political figures ruling our country like David Cameron and Theresa May? The media run by the ‘double D’ of Dacre and Desmond the likes of the ‘triple M’ Maxwell, Murdoch and Morgan? And our circus run by Simon Cowell, Ant, Dec or Alan Sugar? Maybe you want the good of days of Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Manning? Or maybe you dream of a time when Oswald Mosley was bumbling around and the Daily Mail cried ‘All hail the blackshirts’.

Perhaps you’re the type of person that goes shopping and wishes that all accents sound like yours or that the only skin tone different to yours comes from two weeks in Magaluf.

Maybe you feel that refugees are someone else’s problem, that The Daily Mail, The Express and the Murdoch Empire have a point.

Maybe you worry more about people with names like Kardashian rather than people who will probably die with no name.

Perhaps you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind foreigners who take over football clubs and big business but you mind them in the NHS and your local takeaway.

Maybe you’re the person who thinks fame is better than talent and that any religion outside your own is wrong and probably dangerous and full of hatred towards others.

Maybe you don’t care about Sterling and it’s dramatic drop against the dollar and the Euro. You were probably unmoved by its terrible performance as a currency and you probably don’t care about the fact it rallied (a little) after the result of this weeks high court ruling.

You probably don’t care that people, post referendum result, are being abused for being from other countries and you’re the kind of person who thinks Al Murray isn’t a character.

Maybe you’ve just buried your head in the sand, you probably deny global warming and think Fracking is a good idea.

You probably think the banking industry considering pulling out of the UK is a positive and that devolution is something that turns Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish into Neanderthals rather than the opportunity of greater independence.

You might be the kind of person who looks at Donald Trumps ‘Wall’ proposal and think that would be handy for keeping Johnny Foreigner out.

If any of that looks familiar then the chances are you voted to ‘Leave the EU’.

Sadly not all of you are like the people I’ve described above, some of you who voted Leave are the clever, the wise and the witty. I really should despise you for taking a country I love into the darkest of possible futures. But… you’re the people who can now make a difference to our country.

You have the opportunity to look again at a refugee and see a person, you can look at the deep fear in the country and uncertainty and choose to change you view on our future. You can see the rises coming in the cost of living that are only just beginning and say enough is enough.

Maybe you can do me a favour and have a little look outside and ask yourself if ‘that’s a place I want to live?’

It’s never too late to stop something stupid, it’s never too late to help your fellow man, it’s never too late to stand up and be counted. Greed, hate, envy, mistrust – these are the new cornerstones of our future. I want you to look at yourself, your neighbour, your fellow man and ask what the future holds for each of them. Are you prepared to make a tough decision to improve the future for everyone and fight for our right to be a European?

Don’t listen to hate, don’t listen to the Trumps or the Farages of this world, they are wrong about the future. Remember the EU didn’t create our problems we did, the UK did and only together with the EU, working together, being stronger together, can we achieve our maximum potential.

It is togetherness, positivity, innovation and curiosity that will drive our future. In light of the High Courts ruling that Parliament must be involved in the process of leaving the EU we have a genuine chance to re-evaluate our position (on all sides). I want to urge us all, be you a politician, business leader, cultural icon, religious leader, media magnate or person on the street – get involved.

Fight for the future – this one really is worth it

And in a related matter I’d urge Americans to do the right thing, we might have screwed up but you do not have to. Vote Clintonyes she’s not perfect but she will not take the world into the abyss and she will help to progress our world.

And to everyone else, take on board the Bill and Ted mantra, ‘Be excellent to one another’.

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