Just back from a short trip to the west coast of Scotland. We had ambitious plans but a real mixed bag of weather didn't quiet play ball. The first couple of days were focused on the Glencoe Skyline route looking at race lines and strategies. Curved Ridge and the Aonach Eagach were both bone dry and gave us a couple of brilliant days out in the sunshine. Monday morning saw us heading across the water to Ardumuchan looking for more scrambling on Garbh Beinn's Pinnacle Ridge. Super grippy rock and amazing rock architecture more than made up for a slightly disjointed line.
Heading north to the Isle of Skye the weather turned and we aborted our attempt on the Cuillin and Dubh Ridges entertaining oursleves with a run along the unworldly Trotternish Ridge. With perfect timing the cloud lifted to reveal a glorious sunset as we dropped down towards the Old Man of Stoer.
Back in 2012 I was working with North Face when they offered me the opportunity to run a live blogcast from their signature event - the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This iconic ultra circumnavigates the Mont Blanc range, visiting 3 countries and covering 120 miles with 9600m of ascent.
In 2013 I returned with North Face and ran the CCC or Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix edition which covers the second half of the UTMB route while again producing a live blogcast
Fast forward to 2015 and I was lining up in the Square du for the main event which had been upgraded to 10,000m of ascent this year
The race organisers had issued a number of heat warnings in the preceding few days, probably the worst forecast for me. Taking it very easy from the start I loped along at the back of the field enjoying the shade as the sun dropped behind the Brevent. The Mont Blanc range turned orange as I crested the first of many climbs under an amazing sunset. Within minutes the runners all around me were layering up - waterproofs, hats, gloves! The same happened back in 2013 but I was still sweating freely in shorts and t-shirt. In fact I ran the whole race without adding any layers.
Many ultras are sociable events, especially at the rear of the field, but the UTMB is almost unique in that it is run in almost silence. I put my head down and in the cooler conditions began to pick up some places. Sunrise saw me cresting the Col de la Seigne and crossing into Italy. A loop to the north crossing the Col de Pyramides Calcaires on some pretty rocky terrain had been added to increase the total height gain past the magical 10,000m mark.
The checkpoint in Courmayeur was very busy and very badly organised. All the food and drink was only accessible from a small area and their was a 15 minute queue. It meant that I spent far longer than planned getting everything sorted before heading back out into a very hot day
My head torch went back onto my head at La Fouly as I headed back out for my second night on the trail. I developed a nagging calf injury and running repairs were made with the kinesiology tape beneath a street lamp.
I'd been signed up for a sleep deprivation study and had regularly been completing a mental agility test and questionnaire. The researchers from Dunkirk were very keen to recommend the benefits of a 20 minute power nap - not long enough to fall into a deep sleep or for the legs to stiffen up but enough to increase my alertness and performance. Despite feeling ok at Champed-Lac I decided to give this a try in the small sleeping tent provided. The blanket and mattress provided were very comfortable although the noise from the main tent meant I didn't sleep. However it did seem to allow my mind to reset and the hallucinations and sleep monsters that have arrived in previous long ultras were noticeably absent this time. I also stopped a couple of times on the trail that night to shut my eyes and rest my head on my poles for 5 minutes. Again this seemed to reset my head and significantly refresh me.
The route up La Glete had been rerouted to follow the old path which scrambled up a series of rocky steps. This suited me far more than many of the runners around me and together with a Kiwi runner we made good time.
Dawn found me topping the second of the last three big climbs at Catogne with clear skies promising another hot day. However the descent to Vallorcine was all in the shade and I did't hit direct sunlight until the steep climb out of the Col des Montets. The traverse to La Flegiere is always longer than it should be but my descending legs returned for the final descent to Chamonix where I was able to manage a good sprint finish
I wasn't too worried about the time but just to experience and finsh such an iconic event was a real buzz. The head and body had stayed strong throughout and I was surprisingly not too broken. Just a few days later I was mountain biking over Helvellyn!
It's a simple idea - 24 hours to get as many checkpoints as you can. For its second year the Marmot 24 moved north over the border to the Lowther Hills which provided a stunning but very tough landscape for this score event . This was to be my first oppurtunity to fully test my knee over 24 hours after the damage it sustained during my close encounter with a Greenland avalanche back in April.
Chasing the eventual winner of the 12 hour competition Chris Baynham-Hughes from the start I headed north looking for quick points. Chris was flying but a couple of minor navigation errors on his part kept him within reach for the first few checkpoints before we went our seperate ways. The weather was perfect but looking to the south I could see the rest of the course suffering under heavy rain. Course planner Gary Tompsett had done a great job and there were a huge number of route choices to be made, in fact I went 8 hours without seeing another competitor
An amazing sunset found me trotting through Wanlockhead, the highest village in Britian where I made the first of my big decisions. Recognising that I was running myself into a bit of a cul-de-sac which would limit my choices later in the event I opted to leave the three checkpoints in the far north west and commit to a big climb and some tricky nav to cross the range of hills to the east of Green Lowther. The big effort I'd put in during daylight hours had paid off earning me 200 points in the first twelve hours but it was obvious that things were going to become more tricky...
As the night wore on the temperature dropped sharply and at one point sucking on my hydration bladder I found ice forming in the bite valve. Wearing every layer I was carrying I was able to maintain some warmth while running but the sun was a long time coming. However it was worth waiting for with a stunning cloud inversion below dozens of slowly turning wind turbines
My second big choice of the event was whether to loop south around the main out of bounds area which gave the oppurtunity of a number of spread out checkpoints or to make a big effort to climb over Comb Law and access a cluster closer to the finish. I went with the latter climbing into the cloud for a couple of hours. Mid morning brought the return of the sunny weather and a couple of good navigation choices meant I cleared the area and was trotting back towards the finish with a lot of spare time. With only a few hundred meters to go I suddenly remembered an outlying checkpoint approximatly 3km beyong the finish which I thought might just about be achieviable before midday. It hurt but I managed it getting back with 8 minutes to spare for a total of 340 points and third place overall. Even more significant the knee was still in one piece so fingers crossed for the UTMB at the end of August
It was all based on a very simple idea. Run from one side of the Lake District National Park to the other taking in a a bit of everything the area has to offer. In the event Open Adventure devised a route which ran from Caldbeck to Cartmel by way of the Northern Fells, Helvellyn ridge and the west side of Windermere, a total of 50 miles.
All week the forecast had been looking a bit dodgy with heavy showers and thunder & lightning forecast. An early and chilly start meant that I mistakenly opted for a lightweight fleece rather than my normal t-shirt and arm warmers. However I was glad of it on the first climb over High Pike where a couple of heavy squalls hit us. The limited visibility meant that that there were some interesting route choices over the tops all played out in real time on the big screen courtesy of the trackers we all carried. Nothing too dramatic on my part and I dropped back down into the sunshine and the temporary bridge over the River Caldew having passed around 30 folk in the murk.
The long drag up the back of Blencathra was as mind numbing as usual but once in the clouds I was able to pick up the Bob Graham trod which cuts directly up to the saddle and on to the summit. Halls Fell Ridge was greasy with a lot of very nervous runners sliding down on their bottoms. Knowing they'd all overtake me again as soon as we hit flat ground I was making good progress when I noticed that I was missing a section of my trekking pole. I briefly climbed back up the ridge but with no idea how far I'd have to go turned back around and continued down to the first checkpoint at Threlkeld.
Crossing under the A66 we were soon back on Bob Graham territory slogging up Clough Head. The weather was improving fast with some stunning views between the great banks of cumulus clouds which were blowing through. I went too high on Great Dodd losing a lot of time of a large group of runners ahead. Everytime I popped out of the cloud they were a little bit closer and I was able to start picking them off as the weather rapidly improved to give a glorious afternoon. Now rather warm in my fleece the blast down to Ambleside from Fairfield was great fun getting to the second checkpoint in just under eight hours.
The second half of the route was more trail running than fell. I always seem to suffer on long flat sections and my pace drops right off. True to form this was my weakest leg with a spot of knee pain not helping the situation. In the gathering gloom navigation was becoming important as well. Some sections were waymarked but care was needed to stay on track through the forests. The final checkpoint was at Finsthwaite with only a short 11km to go. A sausage roll and a brew were lifesavers before back out into a very still and chilly night. Mist was starting to form in the hollows and it was a very atmospheric evening to be out and about. A team of four ahead of me were moving well but I was catching them as they were working hard on the navigation. Attempting to follow an indistinct footpath across farm land at Speel Bank we all ended up on the wrong side of a drystone wall staring at thick woodland. A spot of bracken bashing and a quick climb soon had us back on track and making our way through the forest to the final road run in. Just before my Garmin battery went flat it looked like we had 20 minutes left to beat the 14 hours and approximately 4km to go. It all came good crossing the finishing line in 13:51:58 and 32nd position. Yet another classic race in the making to add to peoples bucket lists!