It wasn’t until I started to look back at my blog that I realised how busy a year it was in 2018. I raced in adventure races and ultras, did an incredible amount in training and managed to move countries, find a new job and move house three times, ending up living in my camper in Dorset in the South of England. It was one of the busiest years of my life, even though I only worked 5 months of the year!
The year started with a lovely camper trip around a few parts of Ireland and between hill runs and dips in freezing water we started the year in style. Little did I know the mileage the van would do in 2018 as well as the mileage my own legs would end up covering. I won’t go into the stats in a big way but I ran 5 Ultras from 50km to 100km, 3 marathons and an adventure race. My average training for the year was 10 hours a week both on the bike and running, with running winning out by a massive margin this year.
My first ultra of the year in Donadea, a flat but fast 50km on the forset trail, finishing in 3 hours and 50 minutes. I was happy with my first ever looped and predominantly flat ultra. This was a great leveller and a super way to see where I was fitness wise after the winter. My plan in 2018 was to try to enjoy every race and training and smile whenever I had the energy on those trails. I think my photos tell their own story.
The lads after Gaelforce Dublin. My first time doing this race and it was the week after Donadea. Maybe not the greatest race planning but I was happy with 4th place and again a good fitness session. I was starting to ramp things up.
The Maurice mullins 51km ultra over the Wicklow hills was a super out and back race. The weather was really kind on the day and I finished a very respectable 7th overall. I paced myself well throughout and used this as a training race. It was good to train in race scenarios and get used to my normal pace over these massive distances.
The first of 2 huge races this year was the Transvulcania Ultra, an absolutely epic race,. It was technical under foot, hot, with relentless climbs and a mixed bag of weather to put you in the pain cave. We had rain, wind and baking heat over the course of a 9 hour and 50 minute race where I hit the wall 5 km from home only to pick myself up, just in time to knock back a beer on the home straight thanks to some supporters. I finished well inside the top 100 in my first really big international ultra. The highs and lows of ultrarunning really came to the fore in this race.
From La Palma and the heat to the Exmoor trail marathon and my first podium of 2018. I cruised around this course and felt really good throughout finishing third in 4 hours and 1 minute. A very respectable marathon time with 2500 metres of ascent in the race.
In July it was back to Snowdonia for the marathon and another tough day. It might of been a little reminder that I needed to take things easy with the CCC around the corner. I suffered at times during this tough marathon over some really hard terrain. I managed to knock 2 minutes off my 2017 time but realised my body was in need of rest if I was to give the CCC a decent effort in just over a months time. A great holiday in Sweden in early August really helped get the body ready for what lay ahead.
Smiling at 55km into the CCC, the most amazing race of the year. I had highs and lows but the good times were certainly worth the wait. I will never forget running into Chamonix with Emma by my side on the camera and my folks at the finish line. Without Emma, my family, and friends such as Sinead Keogh, the race would of been much harder and lonelier and from there you don’t know how things will go. My finishing time of 16.01 was good enough for top 100 men in the race and really an incredible placing out of 1600 runners. I managed to make up close to 40 positions in the second half of the race. What a day and night it was.
Back to Ireland in the Autumn for a cross country and running with Castlegar is always a proud moment. We managed county medals again and every chance I get I like to run with the club. A PB of 17.10 in the 5km and a good 36.40 in a 10km were other highlights. Nice to keep up some speed considering I don’t train on the road often or do enough interval training .
To finish the monster of a year of ultra running a 10th place finish in the Dorset Ultra plus was a super result, one hampered by an extra 30 minutes on the trail with a wrong turn, but then maybe after a year with such mileage and effort on the trail this was inevitable! Mistakes happen both with tiredness and complacency. I finished this ultra really strong averaging 4 to 5 minutes per kilometre over the last 20km. Thanks to Adam Gamble for making it a super way to finish the year.
2019 looks interesting with a massive result in the UTMB draw this week. I was pulled from the hat for the TDS and will take on the new mammoth 145km course on the 28th of August all going well. Between that and the Lavaredo Ultra 125km, on the 28th of June, I will plan my year.
I am lucky enough to be a Trailblazer for 2019 with Tailwind nutrition and you will see me promote them even more this year. Without Tailwind the likes of the CCC would of been trickier both logistically and from a nutritional direction.
I will also spend 2019 as an ambassador for Uglowsport and look forward to trying out their gear during the year. I apologise in advance for the constant tagging of both them and Tailwind in all posts!
The return to the Jurassic coast for the second outing in the Dorset Endurance Life Ultra race would be a different experience to last year. We knew this before the race even started, with a wet week and a very wet day forecast, this was going to be one of those outings. I knew that I have always been good racing in the rain, not suffering from the cold and actually I think I enjoy it more than most. I decided pre race that I would once again have a reasonably relaxed week in the lead up to the event and on the day a top 10 finish or even a push for the podium would be possible. Myself and Emma travelled down and met the Irish gang in Dorset. Nine of us would race from 10k to 74k races the following morning and an air of excitement as well as some nerves was evident as we sat around for a cuppa on Friday night.
I woke up around 6am Saturday and as forecasted the weather was horrendous. Wind and rain battered the house as we cooked the scrambled eggs. Bring it on!!
Myself, Sinead, Owen and Pol, all part of the Chamonix gang from August would give the ultraplus a rattle, with Emma, Noreen and Paschal ripping up the half marathon, Aoife giving the marathon a rattle and Sharon would run the 10km in a pair of walking boots. All serious feats in different ways. The main thing I hoped was that everyone would have fun and cross the line in one piece. It was going to be slippy and treacherous out there.
After registration the race would kick off some time just after 8. We huddled behind a tent and almost missed the start as they moved it from last year’s location to near the registration tent. Of course in our relaxed state we were almost late on the morning and missed almost all the race briefing. We did get the idea in passing that the course would be altered due to the conditions. Not what I wanted to hear. It actually turned out that it was altered in a huge way and led to a very different race that expected. More of this later.
We were off. I have to say I had looked forward to this race ever since the CCC and with my training going well I expected I could perform and dig deep for a decent time. I decided to bunker in somewhere in the top 20 and take on the first few climbs with a cool head, stay out of the red for as long as possible and feel my way into the race. This is becoming a theme in my ultra running! Only 5km into the race I began to realise that the course alterations were massive. We took on two early climbs but then the trail led to farmers fields, mud and puddles and worst of all, FLAT. I had basically spent the entire last two months doing hill repeats for these short sharp hills. Now I would have to run at least 55km’s of this 75km race on almost flat ground. A completely different turnover of the legs, a different style of running and not to mention the conditions underfoot. One thought came into my head, ‘forget it, you are here now, you are strong and racing’. I soon found myself running with a guy of very similar speed and we started up some great conversations. Adam Gamble was his name and a super runner he was. It turned out we ended up running the entire race together. Adam, like myself had expected more hills, he was a 17 minute 5k runner and around 36 minute 10k runner, had completed the CCC and had plenty notches in his ultra running belt. All similar levels to myself so we decided to work with each other, encouraging the other when things were low and see how the day went.
At around 15km the lead ladies in the ultra caught us. They were doing the 55km course and were motoring. Becky and Bonnie were there names and Becky would stay with myself and Adam for a good chunk of the race. Both of them bit by bit catching my accent and wondering if they would go home sounding a bit Irish!
We completed the first 20km in about 2 hours and realised we would do that loop later on as well as half of it again to finish the race. That was after tackling which looked like a much hillier 24km ahead. We descended into Lulworth, grabbed some water, filled bottles with Tailwind and away we went to start the next section. This 24km was much hillier, following a decent amount of the course from 2017. WE skipped the beach section and one section of the coastal path but would run a few of the big hills on the coast as well. I was dying for hills at this stage and it wasn’t until nearly 25km that we started to hit a few. Of course I felt myself here and powered up the hills, barely breaking a sweat on one or two of them. Adam and Becky were going well too and we started to get a nice pace between the three of us. We descended one of the final hills and took a left away from the coast and across some farmers fields. The mud was relentless. Sticky mud, caking to the bottom of your runners, making your feet as heavy as led but we continued to have fun and a good laugh in seeing who could gather the most mud on their runners! The ploughed field went on and on and up a nice incline before we hit a ridge trail and took a left to start the 10km or so back to Lulworth, most of which was on the cliff ridges with one long climb on the road mixed in. This is where it all went PEAR shaped!
As the 3 of us followed the markers along the ridge, joining the trail we had come up on we realised the trail was following the fence. This would be our downfall. We kept going and began to meet lots of the ultra plus, ultra, marathon and half marathon runners coming in the opposite direction. We hopped a stile and began to descend a long descent that we had come up earlier on. As I ran I was delighted to see Owen and Sinead and flew by as they said, ‘you sure your not gone wrong’. In my haste I thought they were joking and we continued to run. Almost at the bottom of the hill now and I started to wonder and look around, looking for arrow markers. We decided we had gone wrong. I let out an incredible amount of disgust, at myself, in the most gracious of language before gathering my thoughts a little. We could descend to the bottom of the hill and try rejoin the trail inland but we felt we should do the course properly and go back to find where we went wrong. After ascending the hill we eventually found the point where we went off route. There was a gate 30 metres to the right of the trail and an arrow further back on the trail we had missed due to following the fence. There was no X on the stile we had hopped and therefore we had kept on going. Definitely our own fault but the arrows on the course were poor and I have better proof of this a little later.
As you can see from the photo the conditions didn’t help our chances of seeing the small signs, no excuse for going wrong, but at the same time the strong winds led to moments where we all dropped the heads. The rain had eased at this stage and as you can see I had my jacket off and was enjoying the cooling effect that had.
So after rejoining the actual route we knew that for Becky her chance of top 3 ladies in the ultra was probably over and we knew that myself and Adam had been very much pushing the top 5 if not already in the top 5 before things went arie. As you can see from the next photo, we continued to have fun, this taken only 10 minutes after we rejoined the trail. We had met a group of little kids along the trail and all high fived us. Some of them so tiny we barely reached down to high five as we passed.
This photo was taken on the final climb before a roughly 6 kilometre run back to Lulworth. A quick refuel, grab some dry buffs from the drop bag and on we went. Becky was just ahead and stayed there until she turned for home on the ultra as myself and Adam continued to slide our way back around the 20km section of mostly flat but undulating course. The trails were now very wet and the mud was slippier and thicker than before with hundreds of athletes running in the different events all day. Both myself and Adam hit lows during this 20km, but as promised earlier on we talked each other through these lows. How incredible is a sport where you can meet someone for the first time and end up helping them through hard times and making a friendship all in an 8 hour period.
There was little to report on this section as we were a bit slow on the way out to the 10km turning point. It took us close to an hour and a half and the following 10k around an hour. This was of course still good running with 60km in the legs, including our 4.5km detour earlier on! The second 10km was particularly fast in parts (helped by my religious can of coke on ultra race day!) and we began to feel really strong again. During this particular section of the race there is a trail through the forest. At one point you come to a T junction and turn right. The sign here was telling us to turn left and head to the beach. I touched the sign and it spun around. The staples had come loose and a person or the wind had hit the sign. This just goes to show how easy it is to go wrong when you rely on course markers. I am not blaming the organisers as in these races the conditions/weather are the biggest issue and they did have to change the course at the last minute as well. My biggest worry in the long term is that these races lose popularity due to cutting corners on food, medals, tshirts and the likes. A lot of people come to enjoy the finish line banter, the soup or cake, together in celebration. There was little of this to be seen in Lulworth I’m afraid (rant over, now back to the race).
We arrived back to Lulworth for the penultimate time at about 3.45pm and decided we would really try to smash out the last 10km. Back up the steep hill out of the cove for the last time we went, knowing the route like the back of our hands at this stage. We really began to move. The ground seemed to be drying in the wind and the mud began to harden a little. Let’s finish this in style. My legs started to come back to life and I was flying the downhill sections again.
An hour later we were descending once again to the finish line. We crossed the line in unison and let a couple of goat like roars out while doing so! Emma was there, having finished the half and as always it was amazing to see her. That incredible finish line moment is always worth it, even if there was very little to see or do at this particular finish line. A protein bar and a photo and we were sent on our way.
On crossing the line we had no idea where we were placed. The computer print out soon saw us in 10th and 11th place, on the same time of course, but we were delighted. We added 30 minutes to the course with our route but still managed a top 10 time in 8 hours and 53 minutes. Taking our mistake out of the equation, we were very much in the mix for top 5. This was definitely a good example of a type of teamwork. It would of been a really really long day on this course alone. The views were limited to gaps in the mist and the ground was poor underfoot. The banter and craic made the day fun and I thank both Adam and Becky for this. Becky ended up fourth lady which was super considering the detour.
Lastly well done to the gang, everyone giving it their all on a day to remember. I’ll probably be back next year! Why not, I now work just up the road.
Thanks again to Tailwind for their amazing fuel for the day and here are the results.
I recently travelled back to Ireland in ‘The Mueller’ for a few days and between this and a few weeks of constant interviewing and job applications, I haven’t mustered up the time to blog. This said, my training has been reasonably good in the lead up to Dorset UltraPlus, next Saturday week!
I spent time doing hill repeats around the Bristol trails and we spent a weekend trail running in the South of Wales along the coastal path in Gower. Another fabulous UK running destination. A 50km running weekend in Gower was the highlight of the past few weeks with some nice photos to tell the story.
So my training ramped up in the few busy weeks and I found myself a good job, starting in December, but more on this later.
I decided to really mix things up over the last few months. After a race like the CCC we have no idea how the body will react. Rest, good food and rehab seemed to bring me back pretty quickly and I decided to keep 2018 rolling. I don’t really believe in long breaks from training. We all need a week or a few weeks sometimes but as I said before, winter is for becoming stronger and focusing for the year ahead.
A cross country race, a 10k on the road, long hilly trail runs (a few up to 30km), hill repeat after hill repeat and then some turbo sessions thrown in the mix, kept me busy of late. With all this in the bag I am feeling good in preparation for Dorset. I was a little down on both my 10 kilometre and cross country times, but I put this down to maybe some season fatigue as well as holding back just a little for the bigger race. The only issue here is that in the past, when feeling good, I have been less successful. Therefore, I have decided to take Dorset in my stride, enjoy it as I did last year and hopefully make the finish of what is a gruelling 74 kilometres of hilly coastal trails. Sure if there is a podium place up for grabs I might give it a go as well! The massive boost this year is that a huge group are travelling from Ireland, pretty much all on the word from us second timers that this race is amazing! Fingers crossed for the weather.
I had some training plans for the last 12 weeks since the CCC all ready for off. As per usual I veered away pretty quickly from these as life wasn’t playing ball. So instead I trained when I could and I have logged everything in a spreadsheet which will be produced after Dorset. I will be able to explain whether it worked or not at this stage. The lack of mileage, increase in hill work and variety of training will confuse many, but it is my way of keeping things interesting. I have been using Tailwind in most of my training session, keeping the body used to a regular racing fuel. Lets hope it continues to serve me well. Check out Shaun Stewart’s seasonal report here on his amazing year and how Tailwind helped him in the final burst to the finish. My fond memories of Sea to Summit came flooding back as I watched the footage of him crossing the line in 1st place. The end of what was a phenomenal year. Lets hope I get to race with and against Shaun in 2019. Exciting times ahead.
Both myself and Shaun were lucky enough to recently get involved with Uglowsports as Ambassadors for 2019. Plenty to follow on this but for now check out their site here. There is something here for everyone running for the winter. Hopefully I will be kitted out by Uglowsport for races in 2019.
It is quite the name for a race and a mouthful at times so I will just refer to it as the Maverick as I describe last Saturday’s race to you. This mountainous or hilly coastal marathon would start from Caffyns Farm, near Lynton in the Exmoor national park and meander its way along a very hilly coastal route, veering back along some river and farmland valleys before finishing at the farm where our campsite was located. An absolutely brilliant thought on arrival to think that you would camp at the start line and finish at the camper the next afternoon.
We arrived on Friday night and camped within 100 metres of the start line and registration which would take place first thing in the morning. The numbers were small enough for the first outing of this particular race. Looking at the course I knew it was going to be a gruelling race with hills throughout. The ascent at about 1880 metres and the same in descent. Emma was taking part in a 15km route and there was a 21km route as well, all starting at the same time and place with the others heading off the marathon route to head for home earlier. This would be a little confusing for the first hour of the race with half marathon and 15km speed runners running with the front marathoners. As I mentioned in previous posts I intended to use this and Snowdonia in July as build up races towards CCC. They are a lot shorter but if I push that bit faster and not to the complete limit they should stand to me well come the end of August.
A little extra motivation at the start was knowing that I would build up another 2 UTMB points if I finished this one, maybe not significant now, but you never know when they might be handy. I hoped it would attract a few good runners to the race as well. Race briefing was nice and brief, of all things, and at 9.05am we were off. The run took off fast as always with one dude, there is bound to be one, taking off at 90mph. We took a left out of the farm aiming towards the coast and the next few kilometres was fast and downhill. Grassy fields and downhill are fun but these quickly led to trickier trails of hard mud through some forestry. A nasty little climb early on started to spread the field a bit and I sat a bit behind the leaders to get myself warmed up. It didn’t take long before I passed that speedy front runner from the start-line. There were a few ahead of me as we came over the first hill and descended to Lynmouth, a lovely town by the sea, at about 7km. The 15km route went straight on while the rest took a left along the coast and up a steep trail with some nice little switchbacks. There were about 6 or 7 runners ahead of me but I knew a few of these would be shorter course runners. The next few kilometres were fabulous as we climbed a little and then ran along the edge of the rolling hills, massive views of the sea below but concentration was key on some narrow trails, running at a decent speed for the marathon distance.
Another 4km in and the half marathoner’s took a right towards home and the rest of us took a left continuing to hug the coast. The trail turned tricky with some fast downhill and bumpy ground underfoot. Basically holes all over the place in the grass. A little bit like a field that the cows were let into while wet and then it dries up leaving holes everywhere. So after holding my breadth running these downhills, we were led along the coast and into a really technical rocky section along the cliff edge, certain death on the left and hopeful falling ground on the right. The trail meandered along before heading inland a bit and into a big long uphill on a side road. I started to catch the guy on front of me on the uphill and as I fast hiked he was trying to run. We reached the top of the road section and returned onto the trail once more. The guy ahead was running most of the hills and I knew there was a chance this would catch him. I continued to hike the majority of the hills and within 15 minutes I passed him on a downhill. Long distance experience and patience starting to pay off maybe. What I didn’t yet realise was that the two guys I could see rounding a headland about 1km ahead were 1st and 2nd and I had just popped into 3rd place.
At about 15km after a quick water stop the trail joined a section of the Coastal path we had trained on a few weeks ago. Knowing the route is massive and locals always have an advantage. This short section was the only place in the race where I was comfortable to speed up and slow down knowing what was around the next bend. A few short up hills, a few speedy short down hills and ducking my way along the trail under some low lying branches followed until the blue race markers told me to take a right. The next 15 minutes was a constant steep climb up the side of a grassy hill. I knew if I stuck to my solid hiking pace up this hill it would leave a good few behind me with work to do and hoped maybe one of the two ahead might tire as the race went into it’s second half. I was happy with my hike up that hill but when I started running on the flat at the top I could feel it’s effects.
The terrain turned into farmland and long flat fields for a short period before descending along a fence on a narrow trail towards the next checkpoint, as the rain started to come down. A lovely sight for a melting Irish lad. The light mist cooled me down and as I thought how lovely it was I forgot all about the fact that rain wets the ground and ended up on my ass in the ditch laughing at myself. The checkpoint at 26km came along soon. I didn’t stop at all as I had a good stash of water and a few gels if needed. I had filled my bottle with Tailwind at the last water station so knew I was good for grub for the time being. I confidently ran past the guy with the water and of up the trail only to realise I probably should of taken the left trail. I quickly shouted to the guy who said , “yes left, left, and wipe that sweat from you brow”. Well said I thought, can’t beat something amusing on a day where you end up racing some quiet countryside alone. The gaps turned out so big between runners that I never saw another runner between 12km and the finish.
The next 11km of the course were spectacular as the hard mud trail wound it’s way along the side of the hills, throwing in a few lumps to slow me down as well as a good strong wind. The wind, however, was mostly a tailwind and I felt lucky once or twice as it pushed me up and over the hills. The trail descended at around 28km towards a river and I followed the river for what seemed a good distance. The ground here was flat and runnable at a good pace. I wasn’t beating speed records but I was running at around 4.40 minutes per kilometre most of the time. The river was crystal clear and I almost stopped to chat to a fisherman, keen to know what he might be after in a nice fishing spot below a waterfall. I thought, for once I better keep moving, I had second place to catch.
It is always a huge motivator if you’re in a good position in a race. You have something to fight for as well as an even better prize up ahead. I realised I hadn’t seen my competitors up ahead on the long open sections and most likely wouldn’t catch them. My friend at the last checkpoint had told me I was in third, as did a cameraman soon after, so I had something strong to hold on to for the last 16km. This would prove so important as the final 10km of the race turned into a real uphill struggle. I don’t mean that I was completely out on my feet but I mean, literally it was all hills. There were three biggish climbs and in between lots of small ones. This was all perfect for my style of race, but as you know, a marathon is a marathon and when you throw in 1800 metres of up into it you are going to tire towards the end, especially if a good portion of the climbs are in the final quarter of the race. This is how it feels when the legs are tired of course. I managed to hike (at a slower pace than previously) up the rest of these hills and continued to run downhill quite fast, Transvulcania paying off here I reckon. The final long uphill was on a paved road, not something a trail runner enjoys at the end of a race, but in fairness it did make the course a real cracker in terms of variation. With 3km to go the kilometre markers started saying only 3km until you are a Maverick. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but sure it was something to take my mind off the pain. I never laid eyes on 2nd place but finished the race pretty strongly in 4 hours and 1 minute to be met by Emma at the line. She had completed the 15km and looks forward to giving the Snowdonia half a go once again next month.
The rain started again so we quickly returned to ‘The Mueller’ and set up camp for the night.
You can’t beat some downtime after a long run. I was thrilled to get a podium place of course and hope to push on from here and try to improve on last years place in Snowdonia, enjoying what is a classic race at the same time. Thanks to the Maverick Race crew for a brilliantly laid out course with good water stops. The event was a bit dampened by the wind and rain at the finish line but with such a good location I hope to be back again some day.
The Coastal path took us to a gorgeous fishing village called Porlock, 1.5 hours South of Bristol and just inside Exmoor national park. We based ourselves here for Sunday night and went for a few warm and hilly trail runs. Considering the coastal trail takes in 630 miles of the South Western coast of the UK it still remains somewhat a hidden gem to many. Anyone interested in running the lot some day!!?
As you can see above the trail varies from fabulous, quite mysterious deciduous forests, to open rolling hills and coastal views which you will see in the video below. I have to say, not only the fact that the weather has been top class during my time here so far, but the trails are well marked and endless. I’m feeling a bit spoilt with the vast areas to explore. I even had the excitement of a deer crossing the path only a few feet away from me on Sunday. She bolted across my course and straight up an almost vertical hill, disappearing into the vast wilderness. These are the reasons I am addicted to the trails. You become part of their world as well as being completely split from your own. As I’m sure you have already guessed, the camera was in my pocket and I was too slow to grab it as she ran up the hill. Sorry folks but this one is for my memory bank only!
Varying light on the Trail
The excitement of Transvulcania soon passed and almost seems a distant event by now. To be honest my legs are still a little heavy, really feeling the effects of the long runs in the hills over the last few days. In saying that we stuck to around 20km on Sunday and 14km yesterday. No major distance but it is very much up and down running. Perfect training for a little event I am throwing in the bag for mid June, as a lead up to Scott Snowdonia trail marathon in mid July. The Maverick x series trail marathon in Exmoor on the 16th of June will be my race of the month. I hope to be back to full racing mode by then and actually give it a good bash. The hills are everywhere here in Bristol so I have no excuses any more. As you can check out in the link the Exmoor trail marathon takes in about 1800 metres of vertical gain, meaning I will need to stick to the hills in training and try improve at them all the time. It’s all about the goals!
Recovery has been good since La Palma and I feel as if the distance is in the legs. Some good training in the next few weeks, along with maybe getting on the Coastal Path again before race day would be great. The Exmoor marathon takes in a good piece of the Coastal Path so the more time spent out there the better.
I just wanted to take this chance to thank the crew at Tailwind for the support pre races of late and also the great Tailwinds products. They even sent me their buff for free which they do with all good customers! For those of you that think it looks like wearing colourful underwear on you head, I suggest you try out a buff on your next run. I wear it to keep wind out, to keep head warm and even in the heat to keep sweat off my face. Handiest thing a trail runner can ever have in my opinion!
For those of you that run you understand the great feeling post run, both of success of what you have achieved that day but the immense feeling you get when you begin to relax. Here I am below in the sun by the seaside, having left all my energy on the trail, while having fun, and now I can relax and enjoy the evening. I’m not saying you need to run to enjoy a relaxing evening, but for me I always relax that bit more having spent my energy on the run. Everything tastes better and no doubt we feel a little less guilty about that treat of a beer or a big icecream, or if your me, probably both!
I took this photo on the journey to La Palma and the Transvulcania Ultra. Thursday last saw me leave Bristol at 4am for a flight to Tenerife, a taxi with a great bunch of Irish from the South airport to the North airport and a flight from there to La Palma island. We rented a car from here and drove to our destination of Los Llanos. To cut a long story short it was a long days travel and boy was I glad I had a days recovery in between before the race on Saturday. Shaun and I had accomadation just outside Los LLanos where we would eventually finish, all going well, on Saturday afternoon.
Friday was a chilled out day, with coffee, croissants and plenty sunshine. We did a few last minute bits of shopping for some things for the race and registered along with 1,680 other people. Owen Boyhan joined myself and Shaun for some grub and we soaked up all he had to say about the race, having finished it last year. He is great for remembering all the minor details and alot of his knowledge would stand to me on race day. An early night, a few hours sleep and up at 2.30am to get on the road to the start line. This epic journey of finding the start line of Transvulcania almost complete!
We parked the car just outside town so we had an easy route home after the race and started to walk to catch the bus. I realised after a few minutes walk that I still had my glasses on. A quick dash back to the car and then back to Shaun had the heart rate flying and it was only 3.15am. The race would kick off at 6am from the Lighthouse at Faro de Fuencaliente, right on the most Southern tip of La Palma. Our bus was quiet with some tension but as always the ultra running community tend to be a pretty chilled out bunch. One thing that stood out to me was the incredible style of these european runners, looking so fit and no doubt the standard of runners was extremely high, way above anything I have ever experienced.
Before I really kick off this story I would like you to see the route that lay ahead. Here is a link. Zoom in on the map for an idea of the terrain and the distance covered.
So the real story starts from about 5.15am. Myself and Shaun decided to start together and hopefully get a little ahead of the big crowds. We had heard there can be bottlenecks on the narrow trails if you get caught at the back and thought it better avoid these. We hung around at the lighthouse in the dark, with a gale blowing dust around the 1700 competitors waiting to make their way down to the corral near the cliffs below. As we sat and ate a little we noticed a woman coming up from the cliffs covered in blood. It turns out she had fallen off the cliff to a area of rocks below, breaking an arm and some ribs as well as other bad bruising. The volcanic rocks had taken their first runner, before things had even kicked off. A harsh reminder of the type of terrain we faced ahead.
We made our way into the starting arena at about 5.25, a kit check on the way (very strict that we had our phone, foil blanket and both from and back lights). Once in the starting area we realised we were 600 athletes from the front of the line. It doesn’t seem like far but when you have the thoughts of being stopped for a time as the trail narrows we wanted to move forward. It was so tight this wasn’t gonna happen. The race had a Space Running theme this year and our man above was dancing at the start line (to thunderstuck) as the announcer interviewed the pros and asked their thoughts on things. Mr. Cody Reed, one of the favourites was asked. “are you a favourite today?”, his answer, “Yes”. You have to love this honesty, confidence and also the fact that the guy didn’t beat about the bush.
All of a sudden it was countdown and we were off. Shaun sprinted on ahead and I tucked in behind him. We weaved in and out of the crowd before finding some clearance along the right had side. I’m not sure what sort of numbers we passed to get to where we wanted to be but before long we were running alongside people of the same speed and started to settle into a rhythm. Let me also explain here that this was all winding uphill. The first few kilometres was incredible with crowds of people out cheering and fireworks on both sides of the course. Within a kilometre or two we turned right onto a steep sandy climb which took us straight up at a right angle until we hit more road.
This was like a forestry road, minus the trees, and it felt like running on mars. Little did I know this was the nicest terrain of the entire race, underfoot that is. According to the trackers we found ourselves in the top 50 by the time we reached Los Canarios. It was about 6.45 in the morning and the place was alive. There were hundreds of supporters out and I must say I think it was the best buzz of the day. A phenominal atmosphere to say the least. We were only 700metres into a massive climb and only 7km into a 74km race but it felt amazing to have this many people cheer you on.
As you can see above the next 10km would be a relentless climb. The headtorches were soon off and the sun began to rise, along with the mountain. The trail was very sandy and soft in sections, as well as rocky and it was beginning to get more technical. Shaun soon began to peel away from me around the 12km mark and I knew I had to race my own race. It is easy to get taken into someone elses race. I had said to Shaun before the race to race his race. Your own plans are the ones to stick to in a race this long. We had both come to La Palma to give it our all but this meant sticking to our own plans and mine was to go by how my body felt. In saying this I felt really good early on and decided to fast hike all the hills and run anything in between.
Anyone that climbs mountains understands the term false peak. Coming to where you think is the top and realising the top is still far away. This would happen a lot today, however I had semi memorised the distances to each summit as well as the elevation so most of the time I knew exactly where I was. The sun was just up at Las Daseadas summit and the views just amazing, looking back down on the cloud in the hills below.
The next checkpoint was at the finish of the half marathon route at El Pilar. This came after a fast descent from Las Daseadas through the foreast and some good runnable trail. I ran into the checkpoint in just over 3 hours and felt considering the mammoth climb we had already put behind us that I was moving well. I stocked up on food and water, the aid stations being pretty fantastic by the way, and off I went. The crowds here were electric as the half marathon would finish here soon after I went through. The next 10km was mostly along a flat muddy road across the peak to El Reventon. This is one of the only flat sections all day. My legs were not moving like I wished on the flat and I started to lose a few places on this section. I wasn’t in any way worried about losing a few places as I knew I was well ahead of where I thought I would be. “Race your race”.
A quick pit stop in the woods for a toilet break and back on the trail feeling a lot better, to say the least. The last 10km had been wet and almost cold with a strong wind as I was down in the cloud line. The course soon began to climb again and we would climb small peaks, descend off them into forests before climbing again into the sun and the heat. I was drinking more water than ever in a race but knew this was the key to trying to finish. I fueled almost entirely on Tailwind. This product is incredible when it comes to long distance. I had a few jellies, a few bits of fruit and two gels as food all day. Apart from that I fueled solely on Tailwind in my bottles all day. Thank you Tailwind.
The next checkpoint, that I can remember at least was at Pico De La Cruz, at 2294metres elevation. The 10km before Pico was tough, winding through very technical trail, fast descents. sluggish climbs and the heat was starting to ramp up. I jogged into the checkpoint. I noticed I was starting to tire a bit as I couldn’t fill my bottles too easily and I needed a minute or two to gather myself. A woman poured two jugs of water over me which was amazing and I would make sure to get this at every opportunity as the day went on. My little Irish body was at melting point and the watch was reading 25 degrees. I left Pico and the climb began instantly as we crawled up the side of a steep hill. It was about 4km from Roque de los Muchachos, one of the famous checkpoints and highest point on the route. At the top of this steep climb I could see Muchachos in the distance but this 4k would be the toughest section of up and down running all day. I had been passed by quite a few but had reeled one or two of them back in again. It really was amazing racing. The scenery was just incredible. Imagine racing but also seeing views like these.
I summitted peak after peak, dropping two or three hundred metres and then back up again, the heat sweltering my bones as I watched the ground for any rogue rocks that might appear. The terrain was totally unforgiving. Sharp rocks, loose rocks, oh and did I mention, ROCKS everywhere. I had one or two hairy moments as I tripped but I never actually fell. It was more like stumbles and oh crap that could of been a disaster sort of feeling! At one stage, just after one of the pros had bombed by (Kelly Wolf, who would take third lady, finishing the last quarter of the race in emphatic style), I stumbled and was catapulted forward coming into a bend. I barely kept my balance and took the bend without falling. Thankfully so as there was a huge drop off the edge of the trail on that corner. It all goes to show how careful you have to be on these trails.
I eventually arrived at Roque de la Muchachos in serious need of more water and food but not wishing to hang around either. I knew there was basically 20km of downhill ahead and the downhill at this stage of a race is extremely tough. I stood under some nice cold water as some guys showered me down and after a bite to eat, some jellies stashed in the pack, I was off and moving again.
The downhill was relentless. It went on and on, rolling down the valley. The terrain became harder to navigate with so much rock and loose ground. A few athletes bombed past me, clearly having more left in the legs, plus I’m sure the heat was starting to impact my performance. The last 7km of the descent was the same 7km as the Vertical Km race which took place on Thursday from Tazacorte, the town you can see below me in the photo above. This 7km was steep, with small sections of road and sections of slab rock as well as loose rock. My legs were slowing down more on this section. I actually felt great on the first 10k or so after Muchachos and had ran some of the downhill pretty fast. It was the Vertical Km course that smashed me up. I zig zagged down the cliff face and eventually came to the bottom in Tazacorte. This was the finishing point for the marathon, some of which had passed us in the last few hours. More water and coke top ups here, a quick stop for a dance with some kids in the water shower and away once more. I met a nice spanish guy with good English who said it was only 5km to the finish and only just up and over that hill. He pointed to this massive cliff too the right hand side of the dry river bed we were running up.
I managed to run most of the river bed (which was entirely composed of loose gravel and shale), but by the time I stepped off it my legs were dead and my body overheating. Once again some locals stood on the side of the trail and they gave me cold water and a glass of ice which I threw down my back. I stopped, leaning on my poles and told my body to cop on, I’m only 2.5km away now and I want to finish, maybe even in under 10 hours. One foot onfront of the other and move your ass. I climbed so slowly but I climbed. I met two medics with a guy who wasn’t going to make it at the halfway point of the climb. I told myself that I have legs and they can move and that I’m so lucky to be where I am, don’t blow this now. At the top of the hill I was met by a woman with her garden hose which she was cooling people down with. I got a full shower and turned the corner to see the finishing straight. An almost 2km of a straight but it was the finish and I was going to make it. I ran along past cafes and pubs with people cheering and kids running alongside. Animo, Animo, Animo, was the shout of the day, meaning go for it or come on. As I passed one of the Cafes a guy held out a small glass of beer. My eyes opened wide and I laughed as I grabbed the beer and chugged almost all of it before pouring the rest on my head. The cafe erupted into cheers of laughter. No doubt they saw the flag on my bib and realised I was only doing it for my country!!
The finish was incredible with lots of people still cheering us on, even though the winners were in over an hour and a half before. I met Shaun, who looked just like I felt. He had finished 20 minutes before me in a time of 9.28, in 62nd position and had definately left every ounce of energy out there. He mentioned very similar feelings to mine, with the last quarter of the race really hurting. In fairness we did go out hard, but I still think that downhill in the heat would zap anyone. Try running downhill in the heat on a training day, you will sleep that night.
So I had finished 93rd position overall, a top 100 for my first big international race. I couldn’t be much happier with that. The journey had come to an end in Los Llanos and considering a few toe cramps I actually started to recover pretty well after food and a nice cold beer. An epic race and one I will remember forever. We had done ourselves proud and all the training and hard work was paying off. I hope to be back some day, for now I’m not sure when that will be but I would recommend to all trail ultra runners to take on the mighty Transvulcania Ultramarathon.