Salomon Trail Marathon Wales, 2015

This journey starts a year ago at Trail Marathon Wales 2014.

TMW is a local event for me, when it comes to participation events in Dolgellau, it is by far the biggest, and as running events go it is a tough marathon. Also, 2015 was the first year of a 3 years sponsorship deal from Salomon. This is fantastic news, and completes major sponsors for all the trail running events hosted by Run. Coed y Brenin.

2014, I came back from MdS and treated the event with complacency. It took me a good while to recover my feet, and then I just didn’t commit to training. A full write up from last year is here, but the brief line is that I had a big lesson, and didn’t achieve what I set out to.

I’ve had two goals in running this year, TMW and Ring o Fire (September). As well as challenges in work and family life it has been a bumpy journey for sure. However I’ve had a good deal of support from friends and family, and although not as solid as I wanted I followed a training plan, watched what I ate and stayed focussed on that finish line.

What does training mean, it means doing speed work, distance work and also getting my head in the right space. Training in the dark, the rain,  between meetings and just whenever I could was a strange constant in amongst all the other noise. Even working out how to combine a few shorter runs with my 10 year old Daughter, all very calming.

Focussing on the food a bit was helpful, getting rid of a lot of processed food, and just being sensible with portions helped me. At the startline of TMW 2014 I was 93 kg, where as this year I was 78 kg. For those still in old money thats a couple of pounds shy of two and half stone. On me, it means instead of wearing 34″ waist jeans, 30″ waist is the order of the day now. I’ve lost a lot of upper body strength too, but I’ll work on that in the winter, maybe. Possibly after Ring o Fire, anyway.

I’ve never been so anxious on the lead into the race. A couple of big emotional strains in the week leading in were tiring, and general stress levels had reduced sleep to a few hours a week. Hardly the best preparation for an endurance event.

A few friends came to stay the night before TMW, and we headed up to the pre-race party, nice to catch up with a few people, register, and share the atmosphere with Ciara (my daughter). MG Spalton was around with Lucy Bartholomew. Briefly, Lucy is the Junior World Champion in SkyRunning, and a really warm and inspirational character. MG has always been super supportive and warm towards running, and I’ve always been impressed with how she blends happy, warm, competitive running with duties of being a mum. No mean feat for sure! So after a bit of banter, music from CeadCyf we headed home for fluids and a snooze. With house sharing happening I was treated to my daughters bed, complete with princess net and snuggly blanket. Surprisingly I had a good night sleep, and though I woke feeling jaded the general feeling was good!

We woke to a slight drizzle, so I went with wet weather plan. I’d had two choices to make, shoes and tops. I was absolutely set on my Scott TR10 Trail shorts (no need for a belt). I was between a vest and a t-shirt. The T-shirt won easily. Then the choice was between my newly acquired (after demoing) Salomon Ultra 4 Soft Ground and the tried and tested Salomon Sense Pro. I went for the Soft Ground, knowing that both would struggle a bit on wet rock, but knowing a few soft descents would be quicker in them. I still slathered on the “Skin so Soft” to beat down the midges that are present at this time of year in Coed y Brenin. Breakfast down and then up to the forest.

Parking was even more slick this year (quite an achievement) and we all wobbled down to the event area at around 08:15. We met up with a few people who were also running, and the half marathon an hour later. My mind was all over the place, I just couldn’t focus between trying to make sure I was looking after Ciara, but also trying to get my head around what lay ahead. Gratefully my very good (best) friends Jeremy and Kim appeared, and Ciara happily went to hang out with Kim as planned. Phil and I went off for a short warm up and I tried to get “in the zone”. Phil was very gentle in encouraging me, and as a runner I greatly look up to this was, in hindsight really important.

I was starting to find my focus as we walked down to the start, underneath the Visitors Centre. This year I chose to start somewhere where I thought there was about 100 people ahead of me. This was very different to where I normally look mid pack. It was hard to hear the commentary own in the start box, the general chatter was loud. I could just glimpse Ciara and about 10 seconds out I waved, and then checked my watch. Glanced at Iori (game keeper with a rifle) and waited for the bang. 

Found my focus!!
Found my focus!!

My aim was to chase a 5min42sec km the whole way round. I’d set my watch to give me that information every kilometre. I knew the first half needed careful pacing. I wanted to make sure I went fast enough to hit 4 hours, but not too fast that I blew up too early. The initial jostling settled down, and I started running within myself. I could hear Matty Brenin telling me not to fight the hills. I was remembering that downhill were free miles. But, also I didn’t want to smash my legs, so held back a bit on the initial downhills.

Where people had gone off fast, I settled into a pace, and was picking people off on the climbs. I’d worked hard on my posture  and technique whilst running and this had felt good in training. In the race it felt useful to focus on that and my breathing. 

Mawddach switchback (Pic credit Rhys Williams)
Mawddach switchback (Pic credit Rhys Williams)

At around 3 miles the marshalls, Elly and Chris, were whooping and hollering. Whilst I always try and say thanks to marshalls, I was still not relaxed into the race, and thing I uttered something about not being able to be friendly. The next long descent to the Mawddach is definitely free miles, and as I crossed the bridge, I was now on my own a bit. I spotted Rhys who was out on his bike supporting Sandra. 

Everything was feeling good, and I wanted to get into the single track ahead in a place where I was free to run at my pace. In previous years I’d been held up, so this year I pushed into a bit of clear trail and tried to clear my head a bit too.

Things were feeling good, I was on target with my splits, and had my first feed coming up at the 10km mark (about 40 minutes in). A quick TORQ gel, and some electrolyte from the ‘usual team’ at feed point 1.

In to the top of one of my favourite descents, down to the Wen, last year I had a bit of a fall here, but this year with a lovely new bench cut trail, and being in the right area of the field the descent went well. The next firetrail shocked me a bit, at an hour MG came into view. Shocked because MG would be on for about a 3:40, and because though she was a good few hundred metres ahead I was closing on her steadily through the climbs.

A quick bit of tidy single track through Penrhos and here I caught MG. A quick hello, then she asked me to pass. I knew from this, and my splits that I was running the first half well. From here through to Sting in the Tail, my head really started going to the “am I going too hard”. As I’ve said before, because I don’t race that often, pacing is my biggest battle, but everything was feeling pretty tidy, so trust in my training was order of the day.

A committed run up Sting, a great undulating run through Cefndeudwr saying hi to half marathoners heading out, including seeing Sharon and Jude looking very strong. A quick TORQ gel ready to take on water at half way. Great camaraderie here, then the cheering (and slightly bonkers) Elly and Chris and the descent down the new demo loop to the half marathon. My chip split was 1:46:38. This was great news for a 4 hour target, potentially a lot better! A cup of water and then off under the A470.

I’d practise the next section a bit, early in the morning. Trying to learn the shapes and where to push well. At the top of the long climb, there is a feed station in an old quarry. Electrolyte, and a bit of banana and quickly on.

Some lovely downhill running here to the water point that gets two visits and cheerfully manned by the Hide’s. I was chasing a pair of runners, and was still gaining on the technical ground, right to the bottom of “snap, crackle and pop”. Well, at least nothing went snap or pop, but coming off the descent into the climb, my right quad started to cramp viciously. I tried shortening up my stride, and this helped a little, but I knew here that it was going to be a tricky run in.

The 20 mile mark was up at about 2hr38, which in theory gave me a decent crack at 3:hr30! This was enough to push on, but coming out of “Heart of Darkness” and starting the descent my left hamstring started cramping really painfully. Again a quick shortening of the stride to try and let it rest. I did manage to run much of the bit in from here, but it wasn’t very enjoyable. The single-track descent was ugly, I could hear the PA over in the visitors centre welcoming runners in, but now I was just trying to keep up enough pace to stay under 4 hours.

Running into the top of R72, not loving cramp here. (Pic Credit Al Jones)
Running into the top of R72, not loving cramp here. (Pic Credit Al Jones)

Al Jones was at the  marshal point at the top of the last single track, a quick sip of water, and then down to Mark Atherton who was on the road crossing.

Just here I lost two places to some quick runners, and then onto Pont yr Eden.

Just as I finished the switchback, there was a shout of “Ash!” and MG was catching me up.

Just as the climb on the animal trail reached it’s steepest, my left hamstring cramped again and MG came passed looking strong as always. I tried to stay with her, but I had nothing left.

The last little rise to the finish line was lined with plenty of people, my daughter, included. Across the line, and I knew I was under 4 hours, but everything was a bit of a blur. A hug from MG, Es (in charge of all the goodie bag packing) and round the finish funnel to find Ciara.

My chip time 3:43:34, and MG? exactly the same. Couldn’t have written it.

Ciara, Katie, Snooby, Phil and I pausing on a cool Foel Offrwm for a Summit Selfie
Ciara, Katie, Snooby, Phil and I pausing on a cool Foel Offrwm for a Summit Selfie

Then the meeting, cheering and supporting people coming in. Yes, I’d smashed the 4hrs, but know there is more in there. To have been on schedule for a quicker time, and then to have got my nutrition wrong is a good lesson. Definitely something to build on, in a positive way.

The trip out to mobile signal caused a bit of a jaw drop – 27th overall and 9th in category. That put the effort in perspective.

A really nice evening wearing my cozy new TMW15 hoody with some good friends, a few beers and some good banter. Then a little recovery jog up Foel Offrwm the next day and a great recovery massage from Katie from the Run.Clinic finished a great weekend.

A load of thanks are needed to quite a few people. Thank you all!

Looking forward to 2016 already, though I hope my legs have recovered by then…it’s taking a while!

For those with love of data, it was a 5:21/km average. Splits are here

Hope 24 hour run

Funny to be putting this in the “Racing” category. I’ll try and explain how an event can be a non-competitive competitive event as I go through. But, to set the picture Danny Slay, along with Pete Drummond as the organisers of the event make it pretty clear on their website:

“I am proud of what Hope24 is becoming and we like to reward as many of our competitors as possible. Therefore, we don’t do category winners and prizes as we feel that this only rewards those that have the ability to compete at a higher standard. For some, completing one lap of our course is a greater achievement than completing ten.”

With that as the outline, it is digging back to 4th April 2014 how I ended up being there. Wandering through Gatwick Airport with Phil and Andrew on the way to Errachidia Airport to run the Marathon des Sables I spotted a team of guys with Aarn Sacks on. They were immediately obvious as Team Hope, a group of firefighters who were raising a huge amount of money for charity. Social media being what it was, we were aware of what they were looking to achieve and who the characters in front of us were.

After MdS 2014
After MdS 2014

Flip on a week, Andrew, Phil and I in Tent 96, in the desert with the two sleeping bags we’d joined on the first night in the bivvy, Linda and Rachel along with Artur and Dave had formed a pretty tight knit “team”. All working individually, but really pulling the same load in camp. After such an experience, we knew that friendships would be formed, and as we said our goodbyes we promised each other a reunion.

Once home and nursing the long run injuries, Danny Slay was positing about the Hope 24 event, and how teams of 1,2,3,5 or 8 could come run a 5 mile trail for 24 hours. It seemed like a good opportunity for a 2015 reunion, and after a quick email, 5 of us were keen.  9/10 May became our re-union date. In the time in between we had all got our own little running or adventure goals. Linda and Rachel being very competitive in all sorts of races, Phil running some super fast times, and Andrew preparing for MdS 2015 with some amazing Ultra performances. 

But, this Hope 24 “thing” just a social re-union with a bit of running, right?

Phil and Andrew, catching up
Phil and Andrew, catching up

Well, Andrew came back from the desert, and had absolutely smashed through the event this year with a 3rd in Age from the UK. So as Phil, Andrew and I sat in Magor services on the M4 talking through MdS 2015, and general banter, there was a gentle probing as to what our expectations were for Hope 24.

Andrew, Phil and I had run together at Trail Marathon Wales, and Phil and I had run a parkrun together, and we knew Linda and Rachel were pretty competitive. No-one wanted to commit. Just natter, but we were all there to do the best we could personally. Phil headed to Bristol Airport to collect Linda from a flight from Cork, and Rachel from a flight from France. Andrew and I headed to Newnham Park to set up the camp.

After a brief tour *ahem* up the wrong road right next to the camp, we got the tent and shelter up in a relatively quiet campsite. Chatted to a few “veterans” from the 2014 event who were quick to tell us that the hilly trail run was tough and we needed to be wary of not having high expectations for the lap times.

Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco
Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco

A quick phone call from Phil confirmed he was enjoying the same entry tour as us as Andrew and I walked what turned out to be the second half of the course. We would have done well to have studied the rather excellent sketch map from Matt Bisco!

But more about the course in a bit.

There was serious catching up to be done. A bottle of red, some chilli olives, a bit of cheese was a great way to catch up with everyone. Talk of potential returns to the desert, the Dragons Back Race, Glen Coe Skyline as potential future races, plus the Ring o Fire and the Kerry Way Ultra as races we’re variously booked into.

Rachel clearly loving the shift from 27C in France to a slightly less tropical Newnham Park soon layered up with borrowed kit from us all.

The campsite came to life, we registered, got our individual race numbers (for the chip timing). One of the great things about not having “winners” prizes is that there are a large number and variety of spot prizes and I picked up a Buff at registration. We settled into watch (local?) people set up the camp for the event and then disappear and generally listen to the Peacocks squawk.

The almost inevitable rattle emanating from Phil’s rear whilst looking down on the tent took us all back to the days of Granola in the desert. We went to bed with all of us having better, or worse nights sleep. We were up at a similar time, and I got the Aeropress and Carvetii Coffee going, and we started the pre race grazing, banter and working out race order. We settled on youngest first, Rachel, then Linda, and she had mentioned she wanted to nail some laps! Then me, then Phil and Andrew. 

Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.
Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.

I bumped into Wayne Drinkwater, another MdS vet, here for a solo attempt at 100 miles. Wayne was another amazing fundraiser, and I really like his quiet approach to all that he does. Coming back to Ultra distance after a recent op, and being totally solo, we offered space under our shelter if he needed it.

Whilst we talk about nailing laps, Phil decided he needed some new nails, and Rachel happily matched Phil’s to Linda’s. I was quite surprised that Phil managed to keep his nails looking good for the whole event, where as Linda’s looked a little chipped, quite quickly.

Lovely purple nails Phil!
Lovely purple nails Phil!

Happy, and The Road to Hell were played on the startline, an obvious nod to those at MdS2014, and one that Tent 96 had collective goosebumps over.

The shape of the course meant that we could watch Rachel off the line, then support her before the second significant climb and then see her come back past the tent before the first handover to Linda. As the ‘probe’ the feedback from Rachel was really valuable. Two hills, a bit sloppy in places, but all good. Around 42 minutes a lap.

Linda blitzed round, about the same pace as Rachel, we supported. Tony Sheridan also from MdS 2014 came round, stopped for a quick chat, and then retired for Gin and Tonics and steak. What a civilised experience! I started to think about a smooth transition, and how I was going to run the lap. I wanted to run well, but also wanted to hold a bit back it was going to be a long night, and with us aiming towards 160 miles, it was likely to need to be consistent.

Spot prize of a Buff
Spot prize of a Buff

So onto my description of a lap. Standing in the transition box, looking for Linda coming down the finishing straight. Flicking the ‘baton’ wristband from her wrist into her hand. Crossing the line, hearing a beep and then taking the band and turning to run down the start straight. A really smooth left curve, before getting on a stony track. I focussed on getting warmed up, running within myself. A little bend and we’re onto slightly soft mud, and then over a little bridge, roots on the entry and exit suited me, but there were a few ginger steps over this. Then  a very short ramp up to a skeet shooting area, exited with a little Fred Astaire arm swing on a large fence post to a hard standing area marked out with Orange Clay pigeons. Another short climb and then a steady run through the 1 mile mark. This area was the wettest on the course and marked an area where the next left turn started one of two significant climbs. I found this runnable, and with three sections easy to pace through. A little bend through some trees at the top, and then a gently descent to clear the legs of lactic before a lovely plunge back to the skeet ground. The next section really only had a sharp left turn over a bridge as a point of note, quite flat run back towards camp. Somewhere through here was the 2 mile mark. Over the third bridge on the course, a slippy lead in, plywood bridge and then the second big climb. This is steep, through two trees, on open grass pasture then slacking off before a long and gentle climb on a stony path. A brief respite out of this field, before re-entering and climbing the headland of the field to “Thomas the Tank”. This area is a pony club jump filed so has a lot of funny things, including some sheep. Danny told me there is a great view from here, but I was keen to descend this section fast, and never looked up here! A stony vehicle track that descends slowly at first, a few flats, and then a steepish but quick for the strong of leg tarmac descent to a sharp left turn was easily the quickest mile of the course. A narrow little bridge, the fourth, delivers runners back into the camp field, and all that remains is a horseshoe shaped track back to the transition area.

I was pleased to hand the wrist band to Phil, knowing he would go out hard, my watch shows around 36 minutes for my lap, and though blowing hard from the flat finish everything feels ok. A quick bit of water and then get on with supporting the rest of the team.

Phil came back and despite having a poorly Achilles had set the fastest time. Andrew was saying he would go as best he could, and as normal not acknowledging what an excellent runner he is. At this point, maybe good, maybe bad, Phil and I went to see the event timing people Wild Boar Events. This showed Phil a little faster than me, but both of us close enough to 35 minutes to think about dipping under. Boys being boys the banter started. I was doubtful of being able to go faster than Phil. However, I like trail, and Phil doesn’t get as much time on it as I do.

Andrew came back in having smashed a great time, and off went Rachel again. One rotation and 25 miles we were off again.

I decided I was going to “go hard”on my next lap and dipped under the 35 mins mark. I was helped by a runner passing me at the second bridge of the lap, and I just locked on for the tow. But, the confidence this gave me was brilliant.

After this lap I popped to the Luff Bus for a yummy bit of flapjack, and some Butternut and Lentil Dhal. Great food to have at an event like this and was much appreciated!

Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!
Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!

We were all pushing hard, and just as the sun was setting we realised that we were actually one of the teams putting in the most laps for the time. Go Tent 96!! There was a slight disbelief we were up there ahead of teams of 8, mixed and single sex. This started to fade in the night, we started losing places, and I think we all took our eyes off comparing, and just went as well as we could. There were a couple of trials and Rachel needed to shift her position in the running order. This meant a shorter rest for us for a bit, but she soon rejoined the running order. Dark trail running is a skill, and made harder when the cloud came down. Short lie downs meant no proper sleep, and the inevitable misery of putting wet running gear back on and getting cold waiting for the returning runner adds mental and physical challenges. Our transitions stayed smooth, and whilst we all slowed down we kept plugging out good consistent laps.

As the sun started to rise we checked our placings again, we had incredibly pulled out a lead against a male team of 8, and were in the overall lead. Both Phil and I had had “bad” laps of over 40 minutes, which in reality wasn’t bad, but really knocked the mental. Was I tiring or had I just eased off? Phil and I got a piece of paper out and started calculating. If we could squeeze a few minutes off each lap, we may be able to eek out an extra lap.

My 7th lap, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so anxious lining up to run. I knew that we all had to push hard, and I felt really uncertain whether at mile 30-35 I was going to be able to pull it out the bag. Linda handed me the wristband, and I went for it. I knew now the landmarks for time this lap. I was steady, not quick, through to the top of the first climb, and then I went for it. It hurt, but not enough to back off. I reached Thomas the Tank with a cramp starting in my left hamstring. But, I knew I could go back under 40 minutes, and hammered the descent, a herd of Elephants I think was the description of that one.  That lap has changed my view of what I can do when tired, and was a big moment when I crossed the line back in the region of 37 minutes.

Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.
Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.

A brief shout out to my Salomon Sense Pro that came recommended from Run.Coed y Brenin as on the last lap they went through the 600km mark, all quite hard miles. The more miles I run in these, the more I think they are a terrific trail shoe. At 6mm drop they aren’t as racey as the S-Lab Ultra, and whilst I covet the Soft Ground version, these are really capable. After 35 miles of quick running, my feet were in a good state, and I hadn’t felt a slip once on the varied terrain of the Hope 24 course.

Now was all about keeping the team keeping on. We’d taken the pressure off a bit, but the male 8 were pushing and there was some friendly banter starting between us all. Our lead came down to 3 minutes, Phil opened it out to 7. Andrew was feeling the pressure, but again delivered an exceptional lap. It came down to the last lap, Linda was going to run her 8th lap, against a team of 8, who were running their 5th. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. Transition was smooth, she ran the bend out of the startline like a 400m runner. Rachel got ready to pace her up the second big hill, Phil and I got the difference in time, told Rachel. And crossed our fingers that the guy Linda was running against couldn’t match her determination.

Watching Linda and Rachel come back into the event camp, with the “opponent” no where to be seen was amazing. Phil joined them at the tent, I about 200m out and then Andrew about 100m out from the finish line. Tent 96 crossed the line together, and in front. After the two teams covering 180 miles, 4 minutes was the difference. Exceptional performances by everyone.

An amazing team, an amazing effort and a real sense of achievement for the team effort. For me, running 35 miles in 4hrs 23 mins and 13 seconds was an amazing result, made all the sweeter by just pipping Phil by 30 seconds over 35 miles. I know though, if it had been an actual head to head race, and not a time trial like this, would almost certainly be different. We’ll see at Trail Marathon Wales this year…maybe!

Hope 24 Medal
Hope 24 Medal

But, it’s not about finishing first. It felt good, but seeing people achieving what they wanted and feeling equally proud is what this event is about. Of note was Matt Bisco running 135 miles solo, supported by many including Elisabet Barnes (this years winner of MdS) and her husband Colin (owners of MyRaceKit) and Great Dane, Stig. But also, the lady, who signed up for the event 7 months ago, before finding out she was one month pregnant, and completing the event 8 months pregnant. To buzzy bees, to superheroes, to runners, to walkers, to kids, to bus pass holders or sponsored athletes this event captures to me the essence of personal endeavour and joint appreciation of it.

To all the competitors who proudly have their medal, congratulations, and thank you for making a really memorable event!

To the supporters, caterers, masseurs, timing guys, volunteers and landowners you all make a fantastic event. Thank you.

To the organisers and creators of Hope 24, Danny Slay and Pete Drummond. It was an honour to be involved this year. Thank you, great event, fantastic hospitality and ethos.

If you’ve read this far, 14th-15th of May 2016 get on it! Hope 24, 2016, it will only be better than this, and I suspect will turn entrants away.

 

 

Buff Winter Trail Wales 2015

Right at the start, I’m going to say a massive “Thank You” to all the organisers, volunteers, marshals, partners and Mountain Rescue team that supported this race as well as the supporters and competitors that made the event what it is. The time and effort that goes into the build up and break down to any event is pretty tough, but in the winter, in the forest  with the wet and cold that we had in the week before the tough conditions were lost on us, the runners.

Buff and finishers mug.
Buff and finishers mug.

As Coed y Brenin is a trail centre that has a history in making great quality experiences for bikers, it is amazing to see the growth of trail running right here on my doorstep. Despite many many passionate runners in the area, it is the vision of one man (Matt Ward) and a whole gang of helpers and partners that is putting Coed y Brenin on the map for trail running. Trail Marathon Wales came to town for the first time in 2012, since then we now have 4 waymarked courses  as well as a nearly endless supply of trails to explore and put together. We also have a really visionary running shop, Run.Coed y Brenin complete with the ability to demo trail running shoes out on the trails. If running off road is your thing, then just like if you’re a mountain biker, Coed y Brenin should drop on to your list of places to visit.

So that’s the location, about the race! Well, it is the same half marathon course that is used in the summer, only in winter conditions. 21.1km of hilly, woody goodness – views, single track, climbs, descents and the wild atmosphere of Coed y Brenin. 

With an entry list of 400 that filled up really quickly, the visitor centre was humming from early on. Loads of familiar faces from all sorts of running, whether road, fell or ultra it was great to catch up with all the different personalities. I’d set myself a goal of 1 hr 50 for this, and had been working on my hill form in the lead up to the event. I’d had a rattly lung infection just after New Year and this had stopped me feeling fully confident in my preparation. But, in terms of other goals in the year this was to be a benchmark to build on with my other races in the year.

Pre-race, picture courtesy of Janson Heath
Pre-race, picture courtesy of Janson Heath

The start-line is beneath the visitor centre, meaning that the route takes you straight up between the centre buildings before turning onto the trail through the main trailhead.

Because this bit of trail is a little hourglass shaped it is good to be patient. So I picked my normal startline spot, about half way back in the pack. And just mooched off. There is always a rush, and I was planning on pacing myself nice and steady. As is nearly always the case, I started picking people off on the uphill, before them coming back at me on the flat. But, again I either do well on slightly rougher ground, or on a climb. I think I may need to try going out a little harder. But. as this was only my second ever half marathon event, I’m still only learning the tactics. I settled back into a steady climb pace for the whole of the trip up Sarn Helen.

This next section then becomes an undulating fire road that works it’s way across the back of Cefn Deuddwr before the long drop to the “aerial bridge” over the Mawddach. On this descent, it was noticeable that I was catching runners in front, and I need to focus even more on my downhill pace. It was in this part of the race that I ran my fastest event mile (6:09). Then a quick diversion to the waymarkings for the half marathon and up the steep little muddy climb on the Goldrush route before nipping off along the lovely descent of the old Karrimor trail. I’d shot this short video in poor light on this section before, and as good as the trail is, I couldn’t use my local knowledge here as I was stuck in a row of runners. Popping out onto the fire road at the bottom to Metallica – “Enter the Sandman” could mean only one thing, local running legend Ifs Richards must be the marshal here, and it was!

On the Goldrush section of Winter Trail Wales
On the Goldrush section of Winter Trail Wales

From here is the longest sustained climb on the course, up through the halfway point. I knew I wanted to run this bit well, and I picked up a good 10 places along here. Through the first feed station, and stuck to my plan to take nothing here. A quick zip down through the trees to the Afon Wen, a guy having a heavy tumble crossing the mountain bike trail, and then the fire road back towards Tyn y Groes. This section I can definitely run faster than I did, and I think this is where my downhilling needs a bit of work. The transition back to the flat took me a little while to get momentum again, and whilst I din’t lose places I didn’t protect the gains on the previous climb. I love the section here from Penrhos over to the banks of the Mawddach and I had enough space to enjoy it. At this next (and last feed station) I took on a gel and some electrolyte and got on with the fire road run up to the bailey bridge. Some stern, but very welcome encouragement from Hilary sent me up “sting in the tail”, I pulled to one side to let a runner go by, let him go in front, before passing him back when his legs gave up. I made good progress to the switchback and then had to settle for a quick walk to get to the top. Just not quite enough power (or too much weight!) to see this one through at 18km. Then the undulating run and small climbs back towards Cefn Deuddwr before the little sharp descent back towards the finish. I caught a runner here, and was determined to pass him on the way into the finish, hoping that I would get him on the last rise to the line. Unfortunately he didn’t fancy giving way to easily and I finished on his shoulder after a good 80m push to the finish.

The finish line was well organised with the friendly face of Es handing out the mugs and various finishers having a chat. All in all really good. I finished just outside my target time at 1:50:15 which gave me 54th overall and 20th in category.  I’m pretty pleased with that. I know there are a few areas, especially in the opening quarter where I could make up a minute or two, and better mental preparation would help me in the last half as well. Job well done.

In summary then, the Buff Winter Trail Wales has, I think in it’s first year, built on the successful summer events in recent years. Great quality terrain, backed up by great facilities, put on by a high quality team who know exactly what they’re doing. A really fantastic addition to the events calendar in the UK. It was fantastic to be a part of the inaugural event, and I applaud Matt and his team for delivering the high standard, in year one, in the winter. Da iawn!

Ciara at the trailhead of the running trails at Coed y Brenin.
Ciara at the trailhead of the running trails at Coed y Brenin.

It was lovely that my daughter Ciara asked to go running with me as soon as I felt recovered, so we talked about heading back up to Coed y Brenin the following day. To say that I was super proud of her run/walking the 4.3km Sarn Helen – Byr route is an understatement.

It was tough for her, but she plugged away at the various bits, and as always flew off down any descent. Seeing youngsters running downhill just for the love of it is lovely and it was great to be out in the woods the day after such a big event for the area. It was quiet, and peaceful again and sharing it with Ciara was a real honour.

 

 

Why run a Mountain Marathon?

Where else can you spend a weekend, in tough conditions, camping in a tiny tent that is pitched on a wet slope, in the wind and rain, and end up with a smile like this after 50km of running up and down big hills?

Running in to the finish, slightly broken, but very happy.
Running in to the finish, slightly broken, but very happy.

It was the challenge of navigating in the mountains and the camp craft that attracted me to my first Mountain Marathon in 1999. Since then I’ve got fitter but the challenge is still the same. I like the score classes. You don’t receive the map until 2 minutes before setting off. The map is marked up with controls. These are 15cm square flags, with a small electronic “dibber” on them, Each control has a number of points, these points, with your exact time are recorded on a little chip you wear on your wrist. This chip is dibbed into the control box when you find the location. Each team of runners has a set period of time with penalties for not finishing within the time period. It’s a two day event and the pair of you must be self sufficient. The winning team is the one that collects the most points over the two days. In the event of tied points, the fastest team wins.

I’m really lucky to have a really solid running mate to share this with – Jeremy.

There is a huge amount of tactics involved, and for the winning teams a lot of fitness. I really like running these events with Jeremy. After talking to another team a few years ago, who persuaded us that being minimalist and uncomfortable isn’t necessary. We now do things in comfort, cheese, crackers and whisky make the evening far more enjoyable than being in a cramped tent waiting for the morning.

This year neither Jeremy or I were that fired up for running fast across the Cheviots. We set off on Day 1 with the plan to have a nice weekend. We were a little surprised to find out in  overnight camp that we were lying seventh, and had made the chasing start of the top 20 teams. We had obviously picked a good course to pick up plenty of points.

This meant a 0742 start for Sunday, but with the clocks going back it wasn’t going to be a massive hardship.

In retrospect we made a strategy error on the Sunday, and should have gone West, onto the moors, instead of East of the start line and into the forest. We were lured by some controls with big points, and totally missed the fact that we could have picked up several smaller scores, worth more, in the same time. Anyway, we ran in, finished 54th on day 2. Combining our points gave us 22nd overall which, given 120 starters, and our less than competitive approach to the weekend is pretty pleasing.

For me, the event is all about the chance to go run somewhere that I wouldn’t  normally and have the challenge of having to have really good navigation. That I get to do it with my best mate makes it really special.

Thanks Jeremy, a cracking weekend, and proof that guts makes glory, not a diddy rucksack! Though to be fair we could cut back in a few areas…I might take one less buff next year!

Finishline photo Cheviots OMM 2014
Finishline photo Cheviots OMM 2014

Wye One Way 50 mile (Might Contain Nuts)

Finishers medal
Finishers medal

Time for a write up of an event. This one comes in a roundabout way. Mainly because I got to the start line with so many doubts and feeling more pressure than I had before. It’s an ultra right up, so you might want to grab some hydration (tea should work).

I was heading to the start line to support Sandra Williams in her first 50 mile run, and to help her raise money for the Welsh Air Ambulance – please consider donating here

Sandra and I have run long runs together over the last little while, and her company in long runs whilst training for MdS made some long weeks bearable.

The original aim was for the South Down Way 50 in April, but events meant that Sandra deferred to the Wye One Way Ultra, run by Might Contain Nuts. I can’t really remember when she asked whether I would run it with her, but I said yes, and booked my place.

The route is quite special, first it is linear, it starts in Llangurig and roughly follows the Afon Gwy (River Wye) to Glasbury. When I say follow, it sort of meanders up off over hills, meaning that the 50 miles roller coasters up and down 2200m.

Why the pressure? Well, I managed to roll my ankle the weekend before the run, and it was a little achey. Plus I felt that I hadn’t really managed to put as many back-to-back miles in as I would have liked. I also really wanted to make Sandra’s run as easy as possible. Running that distance is mainly mental. It is going to hurt. It is about managing everything to get to the finish. The last thing I wanted to be was another thing that Sandra needed to manage to get her to the finish. 

Splits record stuck to my water bottle
Splits record stuck to my water bottle

I found it quite challenging planning in my head. Trying to visualise how I would go at different points. I am fairly detailed in how I plan. And the unknown, being there to be invisible became more and more of an issue as my ankle got more sore. I’m so used to running my own race, this was a new challenge for me.

Sandra messaged me to say “Start together, finish together” which worried me. The doubts I had meant that I needed to know, if I was truly broken, she would carry on. We were fortunate that Rhys, Sandra’s husband was going to be following us down the route and be at checkpoints (CP) so I knew I could bale if I really had to. Though I really didn’t want to, I doubted my ankle would take the battering.

Food haul
Food haul

I got all the food together that I needed. This time I was going to take most of my calories from TORQ gel and TORQ energy, I had two Pepperami Wideboys, some NutriGrain breakfast bars and some ’emergency’ Jelly Babies. Because we had Rhys following us, I also had some flat Coca-Cola, just to lift me at CP’s. Along with the madatory kit my pack was 3.5kg, plus a litre of water, made 4.5kg.

I packaged it all down, and was comfortable with the set up. One chest bottle, and one bottle in reserve, just in case it was hot on the longest leg, that also had some large climbs on it.

I also decided that I would use tried and tested shoes; the Inov8 Roclite 315, just for a mixture of grip and cushioning. My last job was to get the CP’s onto a Movescount Route, this would mean I would have some leg by leg navigation. Because the route is marked it should be a case of just following the markers, but it’s nice to have a ready reference. 

We arrived in Llangurig at 7:15, registered in the village car park. Made use of the portaloo’s and controlled start nerves. The bus load of other runners, who were being shuttled up from Glasbury, arrived, The quiet car park became a lively chatter of 40 ish runners. A couple of dogs were running. We all wandered onto the little lane for the race briefing. Because it had been dry the cattle were still on some of the fields we were running through. As always leave gates shut. And other than that it was a case of “have a good one”. 

The start in Llangurig
The start in Llangurig

We all agreed the start could be brought forward a minute, and then a hoot of a horn and we all started shuffling forward. It was immediately nice to be running. The nerves gone, the focus on the job all that was important.

Sandra and I were running together, just finding our way through the runners to our easy pace. With a race this long, the start is never rushed, warming up as you go.

The route slowly turned uphill, then off tarmac and onto farmland. Not fighting the hills was key; just enjoy the views. I was aware of Sandra breathing hard, and we both slowed to a walk together. Up a big grassy hill, lovely views to the west towards Pumlumon. The group of runners already spread out, and finding their own pace. Plenty of gates, and that was a theme that carried on.

Of course, running down the Wye, if you climb, you descend. That first descent was probably the steepest of the course. It would be lovely on a shorter run, but on this distance taking it steady was essential. We come out on to a little road, and the pace picks up naturally as we are on easy terrain. Quickly, it seemed, we arrive at CP1. We’re quickly through, no need for anything after 5 miles. We join a runner, Nick Lindley, who is having a big year of Ultra’s and we chat about all sorts of stuff. He’s off to do a marathon assault course next weekend. Sandra and I are both impressed!

Coming to the Afon Elan with Nick
Coming to the Afon Elan with Nick

We climb steeply over Cefn Bach, with Nick pulling ahead before a lovely descent. Sandra and I catch Nick at the Afon Elan crossing. Because of the low water, it really is only a splash, but getting wet feet in the first 10 miles isn’t ideal. We join tarmac and as three runners round a very low Craig Goch Reservoir. Just before crossing the dam, Rhys is roadside. Sandra ditches a bit of her kit that she is finding too heavy. CP2 is on the other side of the dam. The marshalls, in their camper, had a lovely smell of sausages wafting out, I joked with them about having no brown sauce. Great to get some friendly banter whilst filling up on water. There are toilets here and we avail ourself. We chat with a runner who is on the way on, who has run the event before. he wans us there aren’t toilets for a long time yet.

CP2 to CP3, is on the face of it simple, alongside Penygarreg Resevoir, then down Garreg Ddu Resevoir to the dam and CP3. At the end of the Penygarreg Resevoir, we catch the runner in front who was trying to work out which fork to take on an unmarked junction. Quickly checking my watch, I can see it’s right and we run passed. The next bit of reservoir is stunning – inky water, slate blue rock and fresh green grass that has grown on the low level fringes of the foreshore. We pass a big group of walkers who shout “runner” to alert the others. I explain jokily that we’re shufflers. It’s very friendly. We arrive at CP3, Sandra takes a layer off, we refill water, have a  chat to the marshals about how bad Diet Coke is. Rhys points out we’re moving quite quickly. We both agree we should back off a bit; we’re going to need to.

We’re both avoiding the fact that this leg is long, and with a big climb. The other runner sets off in front of us and we grind up past the Church. We’re chatting about future events – Snowdon Marathon for Sandra. We’re steadily contouring round above the western end of the Caban Goch dam. We talk work on the descent back to tarmac. Again it would be a lovely quick descent on a different day.

We turn from travelling SW to just North of East as we climb back along the other side of Caban Goch. As we climb, we concertina closer and further away from the runner in front, depending on whether we are climbing or descending. On the long pull up Gro hill we pass the walkers again. Whilst they’re still bantering, we’re a little more subdued this time. A couple of mountain bikers zip down, it really is great riding in the Elan valley.

We’re descending here when Sandra pulls up with a really sharp pain in her knee. Obviously in a lot of pain, we talk through that it has happened before, and that it’ll pass. This is probably my most negative point of the run. My ankle is sore, and if Sandra needs to finish the desire to stop is massive. Sandra runs it out, and we climb again to Carn Gafallt. Sandra’s knee tweaks again on the descent into Llanwthrwl. But it quickly subsides and we descend to the CP. The runner in front is sat on a chair by the village hall. I take some pain killers that Sandra has brought. I can’t quite feel happy on my ankle. A good shot of Coca Cola too. Sandra has some coffee and we’re off ahead of the runner still sat. The Marathon distance run has started at this CP, and so there is more evidence of runners, suddenly. Grass shows the passage of people. This is reassuring for route finding.

The next leg is all alongside the Wye, and is beautiful running. I hadn’t quite plotted the CP in the right place, so I need to “skip” this on the navigation of my watch. Not having done it before, I stop the watch trying to get into a menu. Doh!! I start my watch again. So here is the first section the watch recorded.

We pass a mountain biker, who I’m briefly jealous of. I’d like to come back and ride this section. Having paddled it, and now run it, it seems like a good target to have.

We pass a very impressive house that I’ve never seen before, I think this is Doldowlod. It’s hard to imagine anyone investing that kind of money in such a development these days. Very impressive.

CP 5 itself is a bit of a blur, it’s on the side of a quick back road. I chat to a marshal who ran at Trail Marathon Wales, and was very pleased to hear that Run. Coed y Brenin has now got such an extensive range of demo trail shoes. I treat myself to a Pepperami and a slug of Cola here. There is a very uncomfortable looking runner, who is cramping badly. I offer him some Pepperami as he’s lacking salt and electrolytes and isn’t carrying any/ It’s 6 miles to CP6 and he is being encouraged to consider his choices carefully. 

As we run out through woodland, I’m burping Pepperami and Cola, stay classy Ash! Sandra, understandably, wants to stay clear of the smell if she can. She’s feeling a little peaky! We have a quick navigation moment, as we cross into a field we can’t quite see where the path goes, we add a few hundred metres on, going to an opposite corner before we spot a yellow sign and regain the track. This leg runs right alongside the river, some fantastic swimming spots and at low water the lovely rock shelves are visible. We pass a really impressive chalet style building, Dolyrerw Farm. Sandra and I are both smitten! We pass under the railway, and then pass Builth Rocks, there used to be a very popular canoe slalom held here, but not at these levels.

We can see the Royal Welsh Showground on the other bank, Builth Wells is close. We run alongside the Rugby pitch, Builth are playing Gwemyfyd and are winning 27-0 (they want on to win 49-0, well done!) and there is a great atmosphere. Sandra is trying to work out what to eat, if anything, as she’s feeling a bit queasy. I make use of the toilets, scarf a Nutrigain, some JellyBabies and some Coke. This next leg is the last big climb, and so we’re preparing ourselves mentally.

Out of Builth and we turn uphill, on tarmac, there are lots of midges here and it is a little unpleasant. We climb about 70m and then on the crest of the hill, Sandra spots a little hedge lined lane on the other side of the valley. We both know we’re heading up there. We descend to the small Duhonw river before climbing up what feels like an old drover road. It’s pretty, but hard. We climb to about 400m on the side of Banc y Celyn before contouring. We lose a little height and join a track, before a small climb to CP7. 

It’s under a half marathon left, in fact the 10 mile trail race starts here. We travel along “Twmpath” which is a beautiful mound of grass, quite high above the Wye. This is easy running, and I was lulled into  false sense of security. Just above Erwood we drop in to a little wood. There are lots of brambles, and a nadgery little trail it’s only 500m or so long, but this is the most uncomfortable, technical section of trail yet. We finally clear this, and have about a kilometre to CP8. Sandra is hobbling, and has a very sore heel. We stop, and she gets a plaster on the blister. “Should have listened to Rhys”, she says, as he’d offered that advice earlier. Nothing ever gets better on an ultra!

We run into Trericket Mill, this CP is my final water fill up. I gobble a couple more Jelly Babies. We cross the A470 and follow the Wye Valley Walk alongside the river. There is a path, a hard path, I whoop in relief! The terrain is a little easier. Rhys toots his horn as he leaves us to get to CP 9.

We tick down this leg pretty quickly. The running is pretty simple, the route finding easy, and the light is still pretty good. Llangoed Hall is impressive and well lit, before we pass the Llyswen Water Treatment works and get back on tarmac. I know we’ll both finish now.

CP9 is quick, Rhys has noticed we picked up the pace, and confirms that if we do the same again we’ll finish under 12 hours. The light is fading so we put head torches on and run through woodland and farmland before picking up a firm trail leading towards Glasbury. At the road, we turn left and run to Woodlands OEC, where the finish waits for us.

Coming to the Finish of the Wye Valley One Way
Coming to the Finish of the Wye Valley One Way

Sandra spots that we’re just inside 12 hours, and whilst we’d been vaguely aware that Sandra was running well, here at the finish line it’s confirmed; she is the first lady home What an achievement – I’m so chuffed to be along for the run with her. The emotions of finishing smash home for Sandra, and a little lip wobble are sorted by a hug from a massively proud Rhys. If you’ve read this far, you’ll recognise the amazing achievement – donate here!

I’ve learned a lot, again, about myself. I’m pleased to have made it down the Wye. It’s very satisfying personally, but I’ve got far more pleasure considering Sandra’s achievement. Da iawn San!

 

Ponderosa fell race

After I mucked my preparation up for Trail Marathon Wales, I really wanted to get some speed back into my legs. And so, shorter faster races are something I wanted to get my teeth into.

I’ve still got an Ultra in September, so I’m trying to keep the miles up and do speed work.

Ponderosa Fell race fitted with the plan of short and fast, without it being a road race, which I don’t really enjoy those at all. It’s organised by Wrexham Road Runners and draws runners from quite a wide area.

At 6.4km and 289m of ascent, it is a category BS fell race, and really is more of a hilly trail race. It’s a great place to start on fell running, or as I wanted something to go and really push myself on to get some focus on pace.

It starts at 7pm, and this year on a Wednesday, from the top of the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen. The Ponderosa cafe car park is the starting point, so it’s easy to find and plenty of parking. Sadly the cafe wasn’t open, so there were no facilities to support the 100 or so people that this event attracts.

Aerial at the top of the climb - photo credit Charles Ashley
Aerial at the top of the climb – photo credit Charles Ashley

Registration done, the start is only a few hundred metres away on the vehicle access track to the aerials on top of the hill. 

As with most fell races, the startline was informal and friendly, and the briefing quick and concise. With a quick “off you go” we were away, pretty much dead on 7pm.

The wide open track gave everyone a chance to settle into their stride, and find a place in the pack. This year, due to a bee hive or two, there was a short diversion off into the heather about two thirds of the way up the climb. This was all runnable, but very slow. Back out on to the track, for the final and steepest part of the climb to the aerial.

At this point I was breathing pretty hard, but felt ok. The marshalls ushered us right, round onto the single track path that descends slowly off to the right of the aerial. This section is very difficult to overtake on, with heather and small bushes keeping most runners fairly central. I was pushing my descent here, and normally where I’d try and recover downhill, I was keeping my breathing working hard.

After about 1.5km the track turns back alongside a barbed wire fence, on to initially, an even harder piece of trail to overtake on. This section is fast running, it slowly widens and heather gives way to bracken, the narrow rut gives way to a grass path and the running is technically easier. There are a few soft pieces of trail, no more than 10 metres in length, where some commitment can give a chance to overtake. I’d imagine if this was run after heavy rain, this section would be incredibly boggy! There is one very narrow section where I sheep has eroded a sleeping place, definitely need to stay right here! This soft section ends at a small stream crossing. 

A very short climb puts you onto some slightly broader trail, without the cross slope. This winds and undulates over to where the race joins the Clwydian way. This is a very firm track, and really enjoyable running. That has a couple of lovely descents that are lots of fun, and justify the climb at the beginning.

This ends where the path passes a house, with a small bridge, and the route briefly joins tarmac before the final climb to the finish. This section is the wettest, and most deceptive part of the race. It is 500m long with about 90m of climb. I was blowing hard and trying to stay running, but failed at two points. One chap stopped for a messy vomit, and I managed to keep working hard to run in to the finish.

The results take a while to come out, so I will update when they’re released, but I was definitely over 30 minutes.

The finish line was friendly, with water and category wins getting bottles of wine. There had been a few bee stings, and some quite epic stories around that, especially Lucie, for which this was the first club run. The newest member of Meirionnydd, Rachael) managed to land first senior lady.

Meirionny #Runfie - photo credit Elly Dee!
Meirionny #Runfie – photo credit Elly Dee!

Back to the car park for a Meirionnydd Running Club #runfie and iced bun (Thanks Sandra!) before the drive home.

A massive thanks to the organiser and all the marshalls who put the race on, it’s terrific.

If you’re thinking about a first time mid week fell race in North Wales for next year, Ponderosa should be on your list.

Trail Marathon Wales 2014

When I ran my first Marathon race in 2012, it was the first edition of Trail Marathon Wales. If I had to pick one race to run every year it would be this one.

Apart from it being my local race, it is just so pretty, challenging and inspiring.

This year I really wanted to compete, but I knew that 11 weeks after Marathon des Sables I was always going to struggle getting my legs back under me. Mainly because I didn’t feel like I’d found any pace back into my running.

Phil, Andrew and I, from Tent 96 in Marathon des Sables, all together for TMW 2014
Phil, Andrew and I, from Tent 96 in Marathon des Sables, all together for TMW 2014

The social side to the race is really special, lots of friendly trail runners from all over Europe, plus a local organising team who are passionate about the area makes it a really engaging weekend. For that reason I had encouraged tent mate Phil from Marathon des Sables  to join Andrew, another tent mate in a quick run round the woods.

We all met up at registration on the Friday night. This is a super simple process, and the goody bags must be hard work to make up, but have some great stuff in them. This year, for the first time there was a welcome party. Phil and I went to this whilst Andrew treated his family to a meal locally. With the TORQ pop-up shop in place Phil got some advice and bought enough gels for the marathon.

The welcome party took the form of a meal, a Q&A type chat and a video. As the welcome party was starting at the same time as the finish of the 5 mile 9 Bar 9 race, it was a great focal point to the evening.

The meal was a yummy pasta and drink, all enjoyed on the deck of the visitors centre, with a great view down to Cader Idris. 

The Q&A was hosted by the race organiser Matt Ward, with Salomon athletes Mary Grace Spalton and Rob Samuel and 9 Bar 9 runner Charlie Sharpe. It was a great format, and one that I hope gets more support in the coming years.

Race morning was bright, and as expected a few midges around in the woods. I had suncreamed up, and put some Avon skin-so-soft on over the top. It didn’t stop me being a midge magnet though. Lining up for the brienfing was a trial to not inhale the little blighters. The new format meaning that the visitors centre was the start/finish for half and full marathon distance really made the area feel like a hub.

The start beneath the visitor centre made for a feeling of a natural amphitheatre and meant it was much easier for spectators to be involved. Iori, the gamekeeper appeared with his .270 rifle for the start and we were running up and under the visitors centre before joining the waymarked half marathon course. I knew I was going to need to pace myself,  but felt like I was running easily and so made good progress through the first few miles. The half marathon course broke away from the normal route and onto the Goldrush trail route to pick up the old Karrimor mountain bike descent (one of my favourites back in the day) and I was happily picking people of in descent.

Post race inspection showed up some good bruising.
Post race inspection showed up some good bruising.

I had my first gel at 45 minutes and literally a couple of minutes before the first feed station. At the feed station, one of the marshals, Graeme commented on the amount of midges on me, there were a good few drowned critters on my arms, head and chest. From this feed station there is a nice climb up above the Afon Wen, which then means a great single track descent. In places off camber, but generally a quick flowing descent. I was moving a bit quicker here than some others and so was trying to overtake carefully. I spotted a place where I thought that if I went high and then cut back down on to the track I’d gain a couple of places. The theory was sound, the execution no so much. I gained the places, but totally misjudged the turn back on to the track, I managed to wipe a lot of midges off, but did collect a lot of the forest floor and stomach surfed a little further than I could imagine possible. I got up quickly and got back on with the running. One runner said “that sounded like a heavy fall”, I ignored it.

The next section to the 12 mile feed station was uneventful, I knew I was running at a pace that was quicker than I’d expected but all felt good so I pushed on. With the Mawddach down to the left, Rob Samuel came flying passed on his half marathon race. He was really working, but moving super fast. An absolute pleasure to watch!

2nd place half marathon Felipe Jones passed me just before we crossed the bridge over the Mawddach, looking very smooth. The normal “sting in the tail” climb, which was still at the tail of the half course is now mid course for the full and I eased my way up to the top of this. I was managing to keep a good rhythm going and this meant I was passing people more than I was being passed. 

The turn up Pins and Needles
The turn up Pins and Needles

Then Gary Wyn Davies came passed in third place. Gary has been really supportive of my MdS campaign and so I gave him a bit of encouragement into the last half mile of his race. We drop down to the start finish area, half runners peeling off to the right and the full runners heading left and down over the Afon Eden. I took the chance to grab some electrolyte and then felt like a I ran really well round to the old trail centre at Maesgwm. As we climbed up the Tarw Du things tarted to get much harder. My legs were on the lactate threshold too much of the time and I just couldn’t clear them, Turning right on to “Pins and Needles” in reverse I was really working hard.

I joined a group of runners from Clapham, one runner was definitely struggling and went down really hard on the rocks, he was up slowly, but then went down even harder about 200 metres further on. Tired legs was meaning mistakes had consequences.

From here and on up the long fire road ascent, I resorted to walk running. I know I can run this ascent well, so it was frustrating, but I was enjoying my run and that was all that mattered. I did end up here with the Urdd Eisteddfod song going round in my head “Cwch banana, myndd y Bala”…on repeat, and not going anywhere.

Over the top and then starting the long descent with only a few short climbs, I thought I might be able to put some pace back into the run. My left hip abductor had different ideas, just the most exquisite cramp. It had me hopping and wobbling from side to side, so apologies for the people trying to pass me.

We came down to the looped part of Tarw Du, a good bit of banter with Simon and Fiona Hide. I grabbed water and tried to find a pace, but I could shuffle a bit before the cramp came back. On down to the snap, crackle and pop section (still in reverse) and a bit of deja vue as Es Richards appeared again (I’d seen here earlier in the day on a different section). I’d been thinking about how much I could use losing a few kilograms and so I made some smart remark about needing to go to weightwatchers next week. Back up to the Hides feed station and up ahead I spot Phil, he’s not looking like he’s moving so easily. It takes me about 2 minutes to close the gap. I offer to run in with him and he tells me to get on with it. My cramp is coming and going but not as bad as it was, and I can keep a slow run up. I can’t get my heart rate up because my muscles give out.

Race number and finishing coaster
Race number and finishing coaster

Even so, the final run in, with the exception of the fire road slog up to the start of R74 is beautiful and I can here the finish line over the main road. It’s not pretty, but I slog back under the A470 and round the nature trail to join the start finish climb. My world is very small now and I’m working hard to run to the finish line. I’m aware of noise and people and a few familiar faces but this is brutal. I grab my water, finishers coaster and then my two daughters are there. I stagger to the shade under the visitors centre and sit down to try and get some control back. Then Michaela appears with flapjack and kindly gets me a sugary drink and quite quickly everything is back under control. I head back to the finish line to watch Phil and Andrew in as well as watch the prize giving.

I’d finished in 109th overall and in 4hrs 31. This is going to change for next year.

I was the first Meirionydd runner home, and first from tent 96, I suspect that’ll change too.

Personally, I think Trail Marathon Wales is an incredibly tough race. Intensity wise I think it is tougher than any stage on MdS, but that is probably a function of being able to run without having to hold back for tomorrow as in a stage race. But whatever, it is a great event and one that I hope goes from strength to strength and inspires more and more people.

I do have one rant though…rubbish. The amount of litter left on the course was dreadful this year. If you can take the time to carefully place a bottle on a tree stump a couple of metres away from the race route, then carry the thing to a feed station. Gel wrappers, if you carry it in, carry it out. There should be no need for marshals to collect more than the race marker tape as they leave the course. However, I suspect there will be black bags of stuff to be collected. I personally would like to see all gel wrappers, bottles and lids marked with a race number, as they do in Marathon des Sables. If anything with your race number is found on route it is disqualification. Trail running is about enjoying amazing environments, if we want to stay welcome then it is essential we respect and protect those environments, not just for ourselves, but for others and future generations. Please do not be selfish and leave rubbish on the trail. Ever.

I’ll be back next year, it’ll be the focus of my race calendar next year and 4 hours is my target. Oh, and with luck it looks like there might be a few more members of MdS2014 tent 96 running the race too!

This race takes a huge amount of time and passion from the organising team; a massive thank you to all of the team, marshals, timing team, visitors centre, running club, locally rotary and other runners that make this event as special as it is. Diolch yn fawr!!

Stage 6 Marathon des Sables 2014 and getting home

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 6 and the journey home

Saturday, 12 April

Even though we have our medals, Stage 6 is still mandatory. The stage doesn’t count towards our time or classification, but we still have to cover the 7.5km of the charity stage.

Dawn Stage 6 MdS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

With bodies and minds exhausted the day is really slow to start.

The incentive to get to the finish is the offer of a packed lunch. Nothing exciting, but for us there are lots of incentives. For Phil, he’s managed 11 of 14 raspberry and granola dehydrated meals. No more. We’re all looking forward to variety. There will be a small carton of fruit jiuce, that’s my main focus, anything but tepid water.

With a 0930 start we all start slowly. The cumulative effect of 240+km in 5 stages ramming home. As a tent we’d agreed earlier in the week that we’d do this stage, as a tent, at the pace of the slowest. I’d offered to carry rucsack’s if needed, and now I’m wondering whether I’ll need to ask someone else. My ankle and feet are sore, but I’m moving faster than others.

Today we all wear a t-shirt handed out by Unicef, the whole field will be blue. If it was hard to spot anyone before, today is going to be a real challenge. Rachel heads over and collects our t-shirts and water. For the last time we pack our sleeping stuff away. 

Over an hour or so, though I’m tired, everything frees up a little and I become increasingly confident that I can walk the (nearly) 5 miles to the finish. As I surface I’m more aware of those in the tent. Phil looks empty, the Marathon day for him was epic and he has given everything. He looks ok though. Rachel and Linda are just being their normal machine like selves, they’ll be fine. Artur is keeping himself to himself, I’m sure he’ll be ok. Dave is getting his stuff together and I know he’ll be ok. Andrew though is quieter than normal. Since his shoe collapsed he has had a real battle, I know he’ll do it, he is really invested in finishing, but also I think I spot doubts for the first time.

Stage 6, in blue Unicef T-shirts
Stage 6, in blue Unicef T-shirts

Artur disappears as we head over to the start line. As a tent we’re more united than ever before, this is the one stage where we can actually help each other.

The “normal” start gets under way, “happy” is played, people are more light hearted, there is a good deal of dancing. We hear more about yesterdays stage, there is a huge round of clapping to recognise those not taking the startline today. 917 people start today, that is 106 people less than started stage 1. We think we’ll be on the stage for about 2 hours…I hope that all 917 make the finish line.

Tent 96 at the start of Stage 6 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

The countdown, the start is predictably much slower than normal. There are sponsors and families walking with us, and whilst a few runners shoot off, most of us are walking as tents. It’s a curved route. A few sandy bits, a canal to cross (!) and then into Ait Ichchou. 

Tent 96 walks and talks. Even after this intense time we’re still able to chat easily. I ask Andrew how he’s doing and he utters that he’s not sure whether he can do today. There is no way as a tent that we’ll let him not. I’m hoping this is just a dark moment for him.

Phil is going to collect some golden sand, and that  turns out harder than he thought-every time he collects some, its darker than he wanted.

We walk on, no CP’s today, just a start and a finish. The cotton Unicef shirt is soaking up the sweat and I realise how good my technical t-shirt has been. I remember to keep drinking though.

We’re all walking a bit more freely, I grab another couple of minutes with Andrew. I offer that offloading his bag is a possibility if he needs it. He’s brighter, and adamant he is ok. I know he’ll be ok now. 

We climb a small dune and start walking into a cultivated area, there is greenery, and small buildings. There is a line of green trees crossing the horizon to our left that I’m convinced must be a canal. We turn a hard left, there is a vehicle track and a small bridge visible. The “canal” is in reality a small concrete ditch, about 6 foot across and totally dry. As we cross the bridge, there are way more people, a school bus and I can now hear the finish line.

We all join arms and cross the finish line. Job done.

A queue, hand in the transponder, hand in the flare…and then there is some flatbread, a packed lunch.  Another queue for Sultan Tea. We all walk through to find the buses.

We find a bus, there is a moment of faff, then our bags are underneath, we’re clutching our food and we climb aboard into an air condition bus. The serious eating begins. Taboulé, fruit juice, bread, mini babybel, fruit puree, salami and crackers all wolfed down, as we’re doing that the coach has filled up and the bags closed into the bottom of the bus.

Phil has a moment, in his tiredness he’s convinced he has put his camera down, he doesn’t have it with him, and he’s certain he had it out of his bag. I’m gutted for him. The memories and videos he has taken would be a massive loss. I hope he has been in auto pilot and he has stowed the camera in his rucsac without thinking. We’ll find out in 4hrs when we get to Ouarzazate.

It doesn’t take too long and most of us are napping. After a couple of hours the convoy of buses stops on a long straight bit of road. Comfort break Morocco style. Gents on the right, Ladies on the left. Sides of the road that is. When all are back on board We get underway again. I chat with Rob Masson in front. He feels the MdS is ticked off, and now he can focus on IronMan Zurich. I admire that he can be so  focussed so soon. I haven’t processed that far ahead yet. This wasn’t about a bucket list for me.

We get to Ouarzazate and do a tour of the hotels. Dropping different nations off in different places. The Berbere Palace is where the Brits are staying. We offload and Phil finds his camera, in his rucsac. Autopilot has won out. Ours is a smart hotel with a history of hosting film productions when there is something being filmed in the desert. As a result the walls are covered in pictures, and various props from films are around the lobby. It’s a stark contrast to where we’ve been and how we all look packed in our 7 day old running gears, covered in sand, sweat and salt. We collect our big bags.

Phil and I are sharing and after doing a couple of loops of the hotel we find our very comfortable room.

The bathroom gets a hammering, showers, and shaves are order of the day. I’ve a few bits stinging, and my feet are definitely needing some attention. The shower has a real tide of muck in the bottom of it, but this soon clears up. A shower gel bottle has exploded in my bag, so I’m limited to jeans. I’m ok with that!

We’re back into the bar for a celebratory beer and the evening buffet, It seems strange being down to Andrew, Dave, Phil and I – Rachel and Linda are in a different hotel being from Ireland. The evening is pretty focussed on getting into bed. The food is great, fresh and tasty, but sleep is calling us all. Artur arrives as we are finishing up with two enormous plates of food. He announces he has lost 13kg in the 6 days; he’s not wasting any time putting that right!

The Brits who had not made it to the finish were also in the hotel. It was nice to see their faces and hear their stories. There was a lot of positivity, I’m not sure I could have been so up beat given the sacrifice and training that were put in. I have total admiration for anyone who takes the start line, the story there after can be hard to hear.

Into bed and I get my feet up on the bolster, I’ve got a good bit of throbbing going on and this raising definitely helps.

Sunday, 13 April

We’d agreed to meet for breakfast after a good nights sleep. No sign of Andrew and Dave so we tuck in.

As I’m heading back to the room, I meet Dave. He and Andrew have been early to Doc Trotters. Andrew had got up to go to the toilet in the night, when the sun had come up there was a trail of bloody footprints where he’d been. Whilst sore, I’m grateful not to be so bad!

We hobble down to Hotel Kos and meet up with Rachel and Linda. We were there to collect our finishers t-shirts and see the “boutique” items. It’s another long queue.

Tent 96 in civvies after getting our finishers t-shirts
Tent 96 in civvies after getting our finishers t-shirts

Whilst Linda went to see Doc Trotter, downstairs, I get my ice cold Fanta-bliss. Phil gets a photo with Patrick Bauer. My feet are throbbing, so whilst Phil, Dave, Rachel and Linda head into town, Andrew and I stroll back to the hotel.

Andrew and I settle for a Pizza, and Artur strolls over; he’s holding a big plate of food again. He is heading off to meet his wife tomorrow in Marrakesh and is sorting out travel. It sounds like it’ll be an adventure in its own right. Things accelerate and he’s away.

Everyone joins us later; they’ve had a good time in Ouarzazate. There is talk of parties, but I’m still keen to sleep. The afternoon is spent chatting and quickly the evening buffet arrives. We plate up on food. There is a presentation for the fastest, heaviest, best dressed runners. Danny Kendall getting a massive shout as well as a slightly reserved Julia Donovan. The heaviest pack is announced at 25kgs…nuts. We’re all quite early to bed again. I have my feet up again, though my feet feel better.

Monday, 14 April.

Flight out today, breakfast happens quickly. We have a short debate with reception about the fact that we couldn’t have a bar bill in room 530-we’d paid cash the whole time. Turns out “530 bis”-which is upstairs, has the same tab as us. They clear their bill.

Onto the coach for a (nearly) 10 minute transfer. All 6 check in desk are open, but it still takes an hour to go through. Andrews name isn’t on the flight, Sarah from Running Sahara soon sorts this out. The ground agents haven’t had a couple of the pages of manifest.

Then everyone goes through one security gate. I get to the passport check only to be met with an official that looks very pleased with himself. “You arrived on a motorbike!”. I know where this is going. “No” I say. “You need to talk to Dwayne” and points me at the policeman. Who takes me to ‘Dwayne’ who is actually the Douanne or customs. We have a pleasant chat about a trip in 2010 where the exit customs in Ceuta had misfiled a document for the motorbike I’m on. I found out that I left this bike in Morocco as I rode it back in, in 2011. We talk about the MdS and he asks where the bike is now. I tell him in Wales, and he wants me to sign a letter to that effect. No problem, and he walks me back through to the same smiling official who look slightly put out. I get stamped through and into the departure area.

We’re running a little late and the second flight, an hour after ours is ready to go to. We get called and head onto the plane. Everyone settles in and its obvious we’re loaded when the captain informs us that the ground agents have divided us up incorrectly and he asks our patience. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing that is sorted. The doors are shut and we’r good to go. Except, the captain tells us, that the police have a problem with the baggage on the other plane and the other captain has requested we stay for a while. I can see them offloading a few passengers and pushing baggage trolleys around. But, soon enough we’re away.

The flight goes well and we turn over the English Coast at West Wittering. Out my window I look down on East Head as the plane banks gently right. Both my Mum and Dad’s ashes are spread here-it feels a serendipitous re-entry to the UK.

We track along the coast, I watch Brighton marina get bigger as we start a left turn to join the approach route to Gatwick. The undercarriage comes down, and I’m surprised the plane is taking a funny turn onto final approach. Having lived under this flight path for a good few years I wonder whether things have changed. Any way we zip into LGW, brake and turn off the runway quickly, and rather than head onto the terminal we peel into the stands. I spend a pretty disgusting summer cleaning planes here as a 16 year old, and no its a bit unusual for an arrival to go straight here. As are the fire trucks and 4×4’s with blue flashing lights. The captain explains that the nose wheel got a little hot on the way in, and LGW don’t like to take any chances. We offload onto a coach and now everything should go smoothly.

It does, e-passport is nice and quick, and though the second flights bags arrive before ours, baggage claim is painless.

As we go out of arrivals there are a lot of people welcoming runners back, and Team Hope are getting a particularly rowdy welcome. Andrew, Phil, Dave and I shake hands and scatter on our separate journeys to get home.

It’s a sudden ending to an amazing experience.

Stage 5 Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 5

Friday, 11 April

Link to stage 5 roadbook

The tent comes round sharply, the main pack are away at 0700 on the 42km of Stage 5.

My body feels fairly battered. My head had been in the “get the long day done and the Marathon day would be a walk in the park”. Everything is taking ages this morning. Eating breakfast is a real trial. It just doesn’t want to go down.

A quick look at the road book… CP1 12km, CP2 11km, CP3 9km, 10km to the finish. They’re ok chunks.

For the first time in the week the sky is overcast. Perhaps its not going to be too hot. A lot of chatter about how today was a fast and flat day. I was going to need it to be. Phil is fired up, if he can pull of a good stage then he’ll lock his top 200 finish into the top 150 pretty comfortably.

We’re told we need to collect a new, clean race number. We all do it, but a bit confused why. Apparently its for the photographs today. It’s done grudgingly. Another queue!

Pre start stage 5 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

My ankle is really, really sore. I pop a tramadol hoping it’ll deal with the mush that my feet have become. Pulling compression socks and socks on, followed by gaiters I decide my feet are so swollen that I can’t wear my normal two pairs of socks. It can’t make things too much worse. Andrew’s collapsed Hoka is looking worse, Artur’s feet are looking worse, Linda has strapping on her knee and a couple of blisters, but she’ll be quick again. Dave is holding it together much better than the rest of us, but we’re all realising that today is going to be hard.

Rachel has made it into 199th overall, so along with Phil their start is at 0930. We all drop into our own worlds this morning, and saunter over to the start. Today it has a little taped box around it, this should cram us in a bit tighter. I meet up with Sarah (Swampy Tigs) and she is in good spirits having finished her long day. Worried about the cut off time for CP3, but we’ve all come so far I hope everyone makes it round. Linda, Dave and Andrew are around too. We all know today is going to be a battle.

The helicopters are noticeably absent this morning. We hear that we’re down to 926 starters today. That’s well over 10% of the field gone from Day 1. Normally the whole race only loses about 4%. This edition has been tough.

“Happy” plays again, but I tune it out. I know I can cover the distance today, but its going to be mentally much tougher for me than the long day. Because I hadn’t expected it to be, I was really in the right zone. I’d checked out the results, and I really wanted to beat Rory Coleman home. For no other reasons than I needed a motivation, this was it.

“Happy” gives way to “Highway to Hell” and we’re off.

I can’t call it a run, I’m hobbling on my left ankle, each heel strike is sore and I’m dreading any downhill on my right foot blisters. But I’m moving faster than 5km/h and that’ll do.

It is flat, and it is quite cool by contrast to the last few days. The running is easier, this would definitely be fun running on a fresh legged day. After 12km and an hour and a half I hit CP1. I think of Phil and Rachel lining up on the start along with Danny, Steve and the Morrocan runners in the top 200. Mentally I try and work out where on the course they’ll pass me.

Onto the next CP, we’re crossing more fertile ground. It looks like crops though the ground is too dusty to be obvious to me as what they might be growing. I’m still managing a fast hobble. Some of the discomfort in my heels have gone, but my ankle is not getting any easier to run with.

I finish my TORQ fuel and eat half a pepperami, this goes down really well. After 1hr35 I see the next CP and look forward to collecting some fresh water. I’ve a Nuun tablet in already, I just want a different flavour to my water.

The fast runners are going to pass me in this next leg. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping to see Phil early on.

This section winds over slightly more undulating terrain, small sandy Oueds. Rachid and then Mohamed coming running through. It all looks so easy, I’m envious and full of admiration. I lock onto the back of number 27, Christian. He’s a 26 times veteran and I reckon I can stick with him. Danny Kendall comes by, and I give him a big shout. He says thanks, gives a wave and keeps going.

As we start a short ascent. Rory passes me. I can’t find anything to stay with him, so I just hunker down behind Christian. Next Steve Hodges comes passed and I give him a shout too. he gives a brief wave. He’s obviously working really hard.

There is a short descent into a gorge and we’re all shuffling along.  The first lady comes by, and it’s Irish lady, Claire Morrisey. Claire had been in our tent a few days before and she is absolutley flying along. “Go-on Claire” I shout and she’s away. Then “There’s my man” comes from behind me in a South Walian accent. It’s Phil and he is gunning it. Not quite on Claire’s shoulder but not far off. He’s having an awesome run and I tell him.

We all enter a little area of crops, round a small wall and then there are a whole bunch of people. It’s CP3 and there are some spectators here as well as the water stop. I’ve taken 1hr30 to cover the 9km, elegant running this is not.

I try and be quick through the CP, I have a TORQ gel to try and put some energy in my legs. It only vaguely works. Immediately after CP3 we’re into a soft Oued. I pull alongside a welshman now living in the Netherlands, Hywel. I can do nothing but walk with a bit of a limp on this soft surface. As we move to the right side, the ground firms up and Hywel makes a break for it, getting back into a run. I have to wait until we’re out of the Oued and I start shuffling on a bit faster. 

This is a large stony plain, there is a support truck on the horizon, I decide I’m running at least to the truck. As I get closer I can see it is Steve from Running Sahara. “Looking Good Ash” he says. I grunt a “hmmm” back at him. “You’re probably not feeling good though” comes the response. I keep it going.

Next rise and I can see the finish. There are some soft dunes between me and the finish. I slurp down a load of water. I run downhill, then walk fast uphill. I’ve my head down.

At the top of the next hill, I look up it’s downhill to the finish. I’m shuffling a little faster, I pull out my Welsh flag. I spot Phil with his flag just in front of the finish. I lift the flag over my head and Phil replies with the same. 

Stage 5 end MdS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I run over the line and it’s done. I’m knackered, I bend over taking the weight on my arms through my knees. There is a great big S-shaped queue winding back and forward to Patrick Bauer and getting our medals. Everyone is sharing around the last bits of water we have. 

Rachel comes in and Andrew is just ahead of ,e. He has beaten Rory home, and I reckon I can’t have been too far behind him either.

Phil finished the day in 4hrs 39, Rachel in 5hrs 23, Linda in 6hrs 04, Andrew in 6hrs 26, Artur in 6hrs 30, me in 6hrs 6hrs 38 and Dave in 8hrs 28. We all made it through the racing stages.

Finish line bliss (in pain)
Finish line bliss (in pain)

A special mention for Claire Morrisey who is the first female home. I’m sure racing in Ireland is going to get a massive boost when she moves home later in the year.

After getting my medal I head over to the medical tent and get some supplies to sort my feet out. Then back to the tent and take my socks off. It’s pretty obvious that I should go and see Doc Trotters. The middle toe nail on my right foot is floating on a big blister. I give them a quick wash off and then shuffle over to the tent.

I wash them off with iodine solution, put on the blue socks and wait to go in. The Doc gets to work on my feet. Draining the blisters first and working some iodine in. This I can cope with. She then says that she’d like to puncture a nail or two to try and save some nails. The big toe on my left foot is first. I can feel she is putting some pressure on, and then the needle goes through. because she has some weight behind it the needle goes well into my toe. A searing pain, and bang of my hands on the floor and a “nnngh” is how far I go. Then the iodine. This makes a throb. But it’s ok, I can cope with this. She dresses my feet and I shuffle back to the tent via an email.

I’ve beaten Rory, but will wait for the end of the charity section to get my classification.

Toes and medal
Toes and medal

We’re all chuffed with our medals and the evening ahead is going to be relaxing.

There is a presentation of the top runners, medals and trophies. Some great video footage.

Danny Kendal gets an amazing cheer as he collects his trophy.

I’m really impressed with Marco Olmo, he wins the Vet 4 Category (70-79yrs). If that isn’t impressive enough he finishes 23rd overall. He also controls the microphone really well, paying tribute to all the other runners. A really inspiring guy and story. Here’s a short intro to who and what he is.

As the French Opera fires up, there is a fairly mass exodus. As amazing as it is, we’re all tired and not really in the mood to party.

Back in the tent, it feels like we’re all pretty content. Aches and pains, are with us all. Phil has given the race everything. Mentally and physically we’re all broken. We agree we’ll walk as a tent tomorrow on the charity/solidarity stage for Unicef. Quickly we’re all asleep, medals not too far away.

Stage 4 Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 4

Wednesday, 9 April

Link to Stage 4 roadbook

After a really restless night we all wake up slightly subdued.

I work hard at stuffing down breakfast without getting up. I’ve kept a bit of water back overnight and drink that down. I decide to sacrifice one of my four sheets of toilet paper for a big nose blow. I can only describe the result to my tent mates as a babies head. The really abrasive dust in the desert has irritated my nose and is causing enormous build ups of mucous at the back of my soft palate. I feel a lot better after clearing everything out, and using my other 3 sheets of paper. Personal admin is all the same, a bit of savlon on my thigh, lots of sun cream on, hat on, I give my sunglasses a clean and realise I’d been missing a lot of the view. My luxury today is a fresh pair of socks. I put the crusty old ones away and really enjoy pulling on the fresh ones. It’s definitely warmer overnight, and there is some very wispy cloud about.

Today, the top 100 runners start 3 hours after us. I’m looking forward to seeing these athletes come springing by in the desert. The rest of us have the tent taken down around us as we normal. I’ve arranged my food for running easily available. I’ve got a 3 TORQ energy powders for todays stage. I decide on one at the start, and hold the other two back for later in the stage. I’m banking on the day taking 20 hours, so I pack a dehydrated Sweet and Sour Chicken, the stove, fuel, lighter and mug so its easy to get to. I also decide to bring my recovery powder for the stage close to the top.

The whole bivouac is quiet and thoughtful. I think we’re all aware of the 80km being the crux of the race. The last three days have been tough and we’re aware we’ve got a couple of tough bits to tackle as well as the distance and heat.

There is still a lot of kit being ditched. Dave finally gives up on a novel he has been lugging around. He decides he is either running, eating or sleeping. There will be a Berber out there reading about John Hunts assault on Everest.

Andrew shows us his Hoka shoes. The midsole that is very thick on these shoes has collapsed spectacularly; this means that the inside back quarter is about 1/5th the thickness that it would normally be. The effect for Andrew is that every foot placement forces his knee in. There is nothing that he can do, the organisers deem taking a pair of trainers from someone that has retired as “outside assistance” and this could mean a large time penalty, or worse still, disqualification. Andrew just has to soldier through.

Morning of stage 4 MDS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

More of us from the tent wander over together, we’re all telling each other that we’ll see each other in the tent later. We’ll get this done.

We hear that we’re down to 941 starters for the stage, and temperatures in previous days had topped 55 C.  “Happy” is playing again and there are definitely some restless feet. I’m struggling to remember the distances that the CP’s fall at, I wish I had a marker pen that I could write the distances onto my bottle, or on some tape stuck somewhere. CP1 is after 10km, CP2 11.5km further on, CP3 10.5km, CP4 13km, CP5 13km, CP6 11km and the finish coming in 12km after that. The total distance for the day is 81.5km, but I have to “chunk it” down to the various legs. I know if I can average 5km/hr I’ll smash my 20hr expectation, but instead I’m trying to focus on keeping each leg to as short as I can. I know I can do the same distance in around 8hrs in the UK, but I seem to be at least doubling times out here. 20hrs seems sensible.

I had felt that I was going to walk the first legs, but the temperature is more manageable. I don’t know whether I’m acclimatising, or whether it is a little cooler. Either way I decide to go as fast as I can for as long as I can.

I check my kit, zips, pockets, I’m only vaguely aware of all the chatter going on around me. I shake Phil’s hand, it seems more poignant today. We all feel that if we get this done the next stage is only a marathon so we can definitely finish.

The countdown is done, the music changing to “Highway to Hell” and the choppers start their runs up and down the file of runners.

I head left, this first 10km should be a really runnable leg. I settle into what is about a 7.5 min/km pace and enjoy the flat stony jog. It’s broken up with a few bits of sand crossing the track, but also a quite deep Oued. The soil in here is loose and there are a good number of bushes. I manage to keep a good pace going. I pass Neal and his buddy Pete. Things are feeling good. I arrive at CP1 in an hour and ten minutes. I’m pleased with this and go very quickly through the CP water collection.

Immediately the track turns up hill towards Jebel El Otfal. I can see a column of runners snaking first right and then disappearing behind a large sand dune. I find my rhythm and then just get on with grinding up this slope. The stone gives way to a hard crusty sand. Runners splitting left and right round a large dune. Go left and the slope is easier to begin with. I go right. My thinking is that the gradient easing off before it goes really steep is probably a good thing, at least give my legs a short respite. It works, round the back of the dune there is a relatively flat piece of hard sand. I can jog into the bottom of a ravine that is about 30% slope. The soft sand to the left, and rock that can be scrambled onto the right. I pick the rocks along with a tall Frenchman who is wielding walking poles. I quickly learn that these things windmill around and so hold back a bit to give some space. We move quickly as a pair. Some people are taking short breathers on the rock, but we move fast and easily. The sand on the left is steep enough now that it would be a skiing trip if stood upon. Small rocks falling from above cause little slides in the sand. As the rock steepens, and there is no choice in the path we hit a bit of a bottleneck. Everyone slows down to the speed of the slowest. I’m gutted, this is like the top section of the Cyfrwy Arete that I look over from home. I’d love to be moving faster with no pack and no windmilling walking poles in front. But I’m not. After one really steep piece of rock there is a 20m traverse across the top of a very steep face of sand. There is a fixed rope (with some dubious looking fixings), it’s a quick hop over the rope from above and then motor along the top of the sand. The rope turns uphill, and whilst not steeper than anything before I pull myself up on my right arm and drive from my feet. Pretty quickly I get fed up of the queuing and just grind it out up the outside of the runners on the rope. From the top the scale of the climb is lost, but the view of the other side of the Jebel is great.

Stage 4 CP1 CP2 MDS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I couldn’t call it “plunging” off the other side, my right big toe is a little sore and I can’t really steam down the descent. It’s sort of a rock highway with a few broken pieces, I take it steady and come out the bottom in good shape and immediately join a line crossing from hard sand to soft, and then into the dunes. The temperature is rising but not unbearably so. The dunes end and we hit a really flat wide open plain. I know this is about 6km across and start run/walking. Some people are flying across here, but I know I can’t maintain it for the whole day so just go for steady steady.

At the end of the plain there is a very small little stony rise and we’re at CP2. I grab my water, and don’t faff at all. Ditching rubbish and refilling as quickly as I can, this CP takes about 90 seconds and I’m off. The last 11.5km has taken just a bit over 2hrs. With the climb and the sand that is ok.

A lush looking Auberge
A lush looking Auberge

The view to the left is great, a large rocky peak. My attention is distracted (school boy error) and I roll my left ankle underneath. It’s immediately painful, but I keep moving and swear at myself for being so stupid. Of all the places to do this, this is not ideal. The area is largely flat though and I keep pushing on towards a building and an entrance to a small pass. We wind through this and pass a little Auberge. I take a photo for a Portuguese guy at the sign. I think what a nice place this would be to arrive at after a long day on a bike. As I pass the lush green garden, a camera man wanders out, he has lost his vehicle and so is taking short pieces of footage. The piste is pretty sandy here, and the camera vehicles have no option but to toot us out of the way. Then 6 bikes pass us. The big bikes really struggling in the sand, whilst the smaller bikes are actually having fun. The sand gives way to a harder piste that rises up a little and dumps us onto a large salty dry lake bed.

Stage 4 CP2 CP3 MDS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I’m back to a run/walk. Runners are starting to focus in on CP3 and a couple of support trucks are crossing the lake bed. I’m really short on water, but still think I’ll be ok to get to CP3 with a little to spare.

I cross the line at CP3 in just under 2hrs from the last CP. It’s getting really hot now. I’m handed my cyalume light stick for later, and I pop this in my pocket with my head torch. As I sort my bottles out the fastest runner arrives at the CP. Rachid makes super fast work of the CP, hardly stopping at all, my guess is about 30 seconds and he is gone again. A really easy, fast gait. Grr.

I check my ankle, it’s swollen but the pain is nowhere near needing a pain killer so I turn into a short gorge and start climbing on sand. Danny Kendall comes quickly by. I give him a good shout of “Go on Danny”, and get a little thumbs up. As he runs down the line of the slower runners I can hear lots of Brits cheering him on.

Stage 4 CP3 CP4 MdS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

We contour awkwardly round a hill, I’ve slowed up in the heat now, but am determined to keep a pace going, so stomp on. As the trail flattens onto a plain between the Jebels my nose explodes with blood. I guess the dust has finally done its worst. I give up a corner of a buff to blood mopping duty and then breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth for 20 minutes until I have a good clot formed. At this point I’m at the base of another climb. I smash in an energy gel, perhaps a bit late. This climb goes up on sand and then gets more stony. I inhale a fly, that gets stuck at the back of my throat. I dry heave uncontrollably whilst I get a bit of water in and try and clear the little insect out. Because of my nose bleed I don’t want to try and sniff it out, so when I get it comfortable I leave it there. I haven’t stopped the whole time, and am now able to make some places as the TORQ gel does its job. I catch up with two ladies, French and Kiwi chatting away, just at the top of the climb. The route breaks hard left on a steep sand dune. The French lady gallops away, I pass the Kiwi and try and half run the descent…its reasonably fun! I’m trying to estimate the time left to CP4. It must be about 30 minutes away, so I get on with stomping my way across some soft sand. Steve Hodges, another GBR runner and just outside the top ten passes me. I encourage him and get a thank you from him. These elite runners are a really friendly bunch, and my admiration for them soars. There is a generator nestled into a rocky outcrop and I can hear it throbbing away, but I couldn’t see what it was powering. As the soft sand starts to firm up the CP appears, and I gulp down the last bit of water.

I hit CP4 about 8hrs after the start. I grab my water and head to one of the tents. I find Artur sitting in one of the tents and things aren’t looking great for him. His feet are in a real state. He has his shoes off and he’s not very chatty. I get on with unloading my recovery powder into one of my bottles. I mix it and slug it down. I’ve been sat for 4 minutes when I’m all done and back on my feet. I wander over to Doc Trotters and ask for some salt tablets. I get 40 or so more, this will definitely last me out the night. As I’m exiting the CP, Nikki Kimball comes through. This ultra racing legend is on her first MdS and seems to be stretching out a lead over the other ladies.

The course now heads onto another stony plain. The sun dipping down just to my right, and it eventually disappears behind a big rocky Jebel. In the twilight I think again about Pete for a while. I figure he would love being here, but probably on a mountain bike. As 1900 comes I pull out my cyalume, bend it, give it a shake and attach it to the back of my rucsac. I get my head torch on but leave it switched off. I’m enjoying the sunset too much. I’ve got pretty sore feet now and my ankle is throbbing but I keep myself going with the thought of some hot food at CP5. As the light disappears the green laser pointing into the sky becomes more obvious. This marks the CP, but it is difficult to gauge how far away it is. I keep on stomping on. I’m now really aware as to why my nose is struggling. Under the light of a head torch the dust is all around, and when close to another runner it’s like running through fog.

2hrs30 after leaving CP4 I get to CP5 and it is properly dark. I grab my water head to a tent and get some water on the boil. Once the water is hot I let my food rehydrate whilst I go for a pee. I sit down for food and am joined in the tent by a group of guys. Their treat is M&M’s and jelly babies. I’m spooning sweet and sour chicken down with rice and am hoping the slightly more complex carbohydrates will help me with the next two legs. I empty one TORQ fuel into my right water bottle, this and 6 shot bloks are the food for this next leg. After 18 minutes I start packing up my stuff. Everything is going to be done by head torch now. I check the roadbook for general descriptions, I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to find the route, and want to familiarise myself with the bearings and rough descriptions. Looks like 3 km of good track and then into a big Oued most of the way to the finish.

I’m looking for a house and a fallen tree. I think it should be visible in about 35 minutes. I’m pretty much alone, just some head torches a way up ahead, so I want to stay on course. After 45 minutes I still haven’t seen the house, I have however found some marker boards that are lit with a cyalume and am happy that I’m on the right course. My feet are getting really sore, but I want to keep stomping along at 5km/hr if I can.

I briefly wonder whether I could finish before midnight. It is possible, but I think unlikely and get back on with crossing hard sand and soft sand, small dunes and rock. I’m drinking and eating well, and I’m remembering my salt tablets. Apart from my ankle and feet I physically feel good, and mentally I’m feeling stubborn as an ox.

After winding back and forwards I come on a Danish guy with a really strong head torch. His beam is really disconcerting so I push on a bit faster and spot the glow of CP6.

Including my stop, this leg has taken me 2hrs40. I don’t muck about at the CP. Water, TORQ fuel mixed and get my last energy gel ready. I think I’ve got no more than 2hrs30 left on the stage. I’m going to be in bed before 0100!

Immediately after the CP the ground is really hard. Rocky and quick going. I shuffle into a run. The hard ground, whilst easier to run on is really attacking my now soft and tired skin on my feet. I feel the heel pad on my right foot separate. The blister it leaves behind is sore, but manageable. 5 minutes later my left heel goes too. I choose to change my food strategy, suck down the gel and some Ibruprofen.

The route breaks out of the Oued. We’re on a really stony hard surface, and each stride is painful now. I finally manage to suck the fly I had inhaled earlier into my mouth and I spit it out on the desert. Result. I’m starting to get visual disturbances now. Occasional flashing lights, and my eyes flicker now and then. I take some salt tablets and have a big drink. I check my watch its 1158, and on the horizon I can see the lights of the bivouac.

Thursday, 10 April

I’m reliving Physics A-level. Dr Keogh explaining about resolving lights. I’m trying to decide how far away I am from the finish. Some of the top 100 runners are jogging by. I’m keeping my head down and heading for the lights. I’m waiting until the single lights of the finish gantry separate and become 2 separate lights. I reckon this will be about 1500m out. I can’t understand why headtorches are off to my right, I’m heading straight for the bivouac.

Then its clear, the ground in front is dark, and wet. I turn right until I find a single plank crossing the wetness. When I look up again, I can see two lights. I start to jog, and very gratefully, 15hrs29 after the start I cross the line. I get my tea, grab my water and head to the tent.

We’d agree that we would line up in order as we fell into the tent. Phil was fast asleep, Rachel and Linda were getting there stuff sorted and I lay down to get on with some personal admin. My feet aren’t in too bad a state, I think, but are throbbing a bit. I have a very quick wipe down with a Wemmi wipe just as Artur collapses into the tent and literally falls asleep as his head touches the rug.

I fall into a fitful sleep, and wake briefly to see Andrew coming in. I fall back to sleep.

Morning after the long day from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I wake with the sun, and a few minutes later Dave arrives into the tent. We’re all home in various stages of damage.

Phil made it home in 13hrs31, Rachel and Linda together in 14hrs18, me in 15hrs29, Artur in 15hrs47, Andrew in 16hrs41 and Dave in 22hrs25.

We’re tired, but pleased we’re all home and we have a good period of rest. I head over to the toilet, and realise I have a bit of a problem with my thigh. The surface of the chafe has turned green. So I head over to Doc Trotters. In the clinic end I get processed much faster than the foot end. Sofy is worried about an abscess, and gives the surface a good clean and asks me to come back later to have it packed and re-dressed for the next day. She gives me some tramadol for my ankle…my world is getting better!

Feeling a little bit better I go to the email tent, and then head back to the tent. Lots of people are walking very gingerly, and my tent mates are doing variously pretty well or pretty badly. Phil and Rachel are in pretty good condition. Linda has a sore knee and a couple of blisters. Artur is really struggling with his feet, Andrew has a few blisters and is managing them himself. Dave’s feet, like mine haven’t enjoyed the long day, but we’re ok. The dressings I had done by Doc Trotter earlier in the week were very swollen. I lance the swelling through the plaster and a big jet of fluid comes out. As my feet dry out, I’m pretty happy that they are doing ok.

Coca Cola from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

At about 1600, a rumble of appreciation goes round the bivouac. We’re all given a can of Coca Cola. After days of tepid water, or Nuun flavoured drinks this simple can is heavenly. We all sit round and appreciate it together. It’s amazing how simple things become so much more valuable.

At 1700 I head back over to Doc Trotters. It’s really busy with feet. I estimate 30 doctors working away on feet. Jean Marie kindly makes me a make shift screen out of a cot bed and protects my dignity with a “babies cot” made of tissue. He cleans my thigh again and drains a lot of gunk out. He’s happy with it though, dresses is and sends me back to the tent.

I meet Phil and Rachel who are buzzing as they made it into the top 200, so they start 1hr30 after the rest of us on tomorrows marathon stage 5.

At around 1700 we all head over to the finish line. It’s customary on the long day for the whole bivouac to welcome the last runners on the course in. A single runner, then a pair and then one lone runner come in. The whole crowd clapping, high fiving and welcoming the runners in. Patrick Bauer meets them all over the line. Apart from being on the stage for loads of hours, these guys have only 13 hours to recover before starting tomorrows stage. The solidarity is touching.

Linda has had her knee strapped and her feet seen to. Dave has had his feet dressed and announces his shoulders are better than ever before.

We’re all really tired and I pretty much pass out after food,  deeply asleep at 1900.