Running from 2014

As the year changed Facebook got full of my year in review posts. I hope most peoples lives are more full than their social media feed! As this is mainly a running blog, looking back I can’t do justice to all the experiences that running has given me in 2014. Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Wye one Way and OMM all taught me lots of different lessons. Critically they’ve left me with a lot of friends and memories that will last far in to my life.

Looking forward this year, running wise I am entered for Winter Trail Wales, Hope 24, Trail Marathon Wales and Ring o Fire . Whilst not entered yet, I’m sure the OMM will make an appearance too. Personal targets rather than podiums are the aim, though I’m already planning something special for 2016.

For those interested in statistics, Strava produce a little summary video that highlights some of the numbers. However, numbers don’t tell the story of 2014, certainly don’t describe some of the feelings and experiences I’ve had and those things that will motivate me for 2015.

As with every year, I wish I’d taken more pictures, but here are some of my favourites from 2014.

Have a great 2015, see you on the trail!

What are the best trail running shoes?

Here’s a question that gets asked a lot. And there are some things that make the best trail running shoe.

In my opinion the best trail shoes should:

  1. Fit you
  2. Instil confidence in your feet
  3. Be well made

Now, because of the difference in trails there is always a compromise. Here in the UK we have a variety of different styles of trails, and these throw heaps of challenges to shoes. Consider the difference between hard pack, dusty, dry forest fire road trails  and sloppy, boggy, marshy trails after rain and you’ll start to see the fact that no one “foot tyre” can fit. Tractors have big aggressive tyre patterns compared to a formula one car. I dislike “waterpoof” shoes, instead I prefer quick drying shoes, which allow water to drain from the inside out. Think if you will about filling your wellies up with water and then walking 10 km. Your feet will be soft and broken. This is what having a liner in creates in UK conditions. There are places where it’s useful, but in my opinion, not on UK trails.

In the same way, everyone feet are slightly different. High arches, wide forefoot, bony heels the list of “I’ve got’s…” is impressive. Get the right length shoe, and then learn how to lace you shoe up properly.

Trail shoes aren’t a one trick pony – I have three shoes that I run trails in. I can run any trail in these three, but my speed will be massively affected by what I have on my feet.

I’m looking at three shoes (L-R)  Inov-8 Roclite 315, Salomon Crossmax Neutral and Asics GT2000. At the time of being pictured I have racked up, collectively, 2700 km on these shoes, split as follows:

  • Inov8 Roclite 315 – 700 km
  • Salomon Crossmax neutral – 620 km
  • Asics GT2000 – 1,380 km

I primarily use the Roclites when I’m heading off the beaten track, mountain, forest and although not this pair, these were the shoe I chose for Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Brecon Ultra and some other off road races. The sole is, in my experience pretty spot on for UK trail running. The rubber is soft enough to give good traction on rock, wet and dry as well on wet tree roots. As the pictures show, despite this soft rubber, the wear has lasted well, bear in mind my running weight is a minimum of 85 kg, sometimes 90+ depending on how much water and kit I am carrying. The upper too deserves credit, these have smashed new paths through heather, run down scree, kicked big rocks in slate fields as well as pottering through Skye’s vicious Gabro rock. There is a bit of material damage inside the heel cup of one shoe, but that is my fault not the shoe, and after 700 km I think that this is a massive success for a shoe that often gets sodden!

The Salomon Crossmax I use when I know I have a large amount of tarmac and hard pack and when I know there are not steep grassy slopes involved. I love these shoes for running alongside canals and rivers. I haven’t raced in these, primarily because I’ve not entered a race where the terrain has suited, but I would use them for any of the Thames path races, or at this stage, something like Ring o’ Fire. These also get a fair hammering through the undergrowth. Though I don’t think this is the reason for the failing upper over the bridge of the toe. The speed lacing system is very effective, and I do like this very much where I don’t need to tension the shoe in a non standard way (swelling feet, steep terrain). The rubber compound is very solid, sometimes at the detriment to grip in the wet. I don’t trust the soles much on wet rock, or tree roots, but this is perhaps because I’m acutely aware of this where I run the majority of my routes.  

Whilst the Asics get used mainly on tarmac, I’ve added them here for a specific reason. I use these where I’m running fire trail, or prepared trails where the surface isn’t broken. I also think the Asics demonstrate how it is possible to make a very long lasting shoe. Whilst these upper do not get abused anywhere near as much as the Inov8’s these do get wet and mucky fairly regularly and I’m really impressed how well they look after 1400 km’s. The sole rarely gets anything more complicated than some big pebbles, and some pretty steep tarmac that I have locally but the sheer volume of footstrike these have experienced (nearly half a million) with my 85kg on top of them are a massive testament to the build quality of these shoes. The grip side of things is never an issue for me, but that is because they are never pushed in a position where I ever really test it. The major win for these is the sheer contact area that they have available without knobbles!

Which are the best trail shoes? Well they’re the ones that work for you. I consider that I’ve tested these three shoes reasonably extensively in UK conditions. Is one of these the best pair of trail running shoes? For me yes, I could pick one pair for all my trail running. I’d prefer to have all three pairs, and I will probably keep on experimenting over the coming shoes. Technology is still evolving in trail running and that will bring about better shoes. Which should you choose? You should choose a shoe that suits the majority of the conditions that you run in.

If I had to choose one pair of shoes from these three, it would be the Inov8’s. In fact I have a few pairs and would happily run any route that went off road in them.

Trust the shoes on your feet, and go run exploring. The best kit in the world does no good sitting on the shelf!

Trail Running Review – why you should try it!

A review, so Google says – 

noun
1.
a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary.

I’m not sure how formal, or how intent I am of changing anything I am, but I’m still going to call it a review. I guess it’s also a description or a beginners “how-to” for trail running.

Trail running is becoming more fashionable, fitness magazines are covering it more and there are definitely more videos being made about it as a pastime.

What is trail running?

It is running (and quick walking) off an athletics track or road/pavement. It is different to cross country running in that it tends to be longer distances so slower paced.

Trail running, at the moment isn’t recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)

Why go trail running?

There are lots of good reasons to go running on trails.

Views out and about trail running
Views out and about trail running
  • You get to see things you can’t on a bike or in a car, it really does get you closer to nature
  • Because fast walking is a part of trail running it is a great way to build fitness
  • No hard surfaces jarring joints means less chance of repetitive strain injuries
  • Uneven surfaces and hills use more core muscles and so build strength and stamina
  • If being watched running around the village/town you live in isn’t your thing trails get you away from curtain twitchers
  • It’s social if you want it to be
  • Above all it’s fun

Where to go trail running?

Trail running can happen anywhere there isn’t a hard surface, and the opportunities are massive. Footpaths, bridleways, canal towpaths, forest centres, mountain tracks in fact anywhere. A sense of adventure and exploration will get you uncovering places near to home.

I’m lucky to live right next to Coed y Brenin near Dolgellau. Here there are easy to follow way-marked trails of all sorts of different lengths. There are also a wide range of routes on National Trust estates too.

How to go trail running for the first time

I’d suggest picking a walk you know, nothing too long, something that you can walk comfortably and know pretty well. Personally I’d choose something that isn’t flat because I’d want places I can walk. A walk that takes about an hour (3 miles or 5km) would be a good place for someone not running regularly.

Then, go round that walk, perhaps running the gentle downhills and some of the flat. Listen to your breathing, don’t exert yourself too hard and don’t be afraid to walk.

How to improve your trail running

Local running clubs are a great source of knowledge, they’ll introduce you to like minded people and probably have sessions where you can join runs. This works for a lot of people and is the most common way to improve.

That didn’t work for me though. I started exploring my local footpaths and forests. Over a period of 18 months I went from 5-10 miles a week to being able to run 90-100. Be careful not to increase your mileage to fast, or start running more hills than you are used to. Muscles can tighten and it really is a good idea to do some simple stretches and strength exercise (I often work my calves whilst on the phone).

What do I need to go trail running?

In short, nothing is needed to go trail running. But there are a few things that will make your run a bit more enjoyable.

Trail running shoes 

From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT
From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT

The first upgrade is your feet, where you touch the ground. It can seem an impossible choice and be quite overwhelming. Don’t be put off. Find a local running specialist and ask for advice. Most trail runners are only to happy to give an opinion.

Any well fitting running shoes will work for trail running. However, trail running shoes have grippier soles and generally slightly stronger materials. Bear in mind they will get wet and have to deal with stones, mud , tree roots as well as grass and harder surfaces. There are some major brands out there Salomon, Inov-8, Asics, Saucony and Brooks are some of the more popular brands.

They all do slightly different things; hard stony trails, soft muddy trails or mixtures. Get something comfortable and go wear them out!

As a note, waterproof trainers are only waterproof until the water goes over the top of the shoes, then the water can’t get out. For this reason I like well draining, quick drying shoes and just get on with splashing in muddy puddles.

Clothing for trail running

This is really personal preference. Baggy or tight makes no difference. On longer days out baggy things can chafe a little, but in my experience makes no difference at all for runs of up to about 20km (half marathon). I would prioritise buying running clothing in this order:

  1. Socks
  2. Shorts/legs
  3. T-shirt/top
  4. Waterproof/windproof

Of course, like all hobbies you can go eyewear, headwear, gloves and on and on. Like shoes all clothing, except a waterproof should be light and quick drying. Building layers of clothing is by far the best way to be comfortable and have the right kit for any occasion.

The shell layer (outer waterproof) -very often if it is drizzly and not too cold I prefer to run with a windproof layer (Pertex or similar). The reason is that when I’m running I make heat and sweat. Whilst I have a good waterproof, if I push hard then I can make myself wetter inside a waterproof than on the outside, so I prefer to let my body heat push the sweat out of the jacket or gilet.

Food and water for trail running

This is a subject in itself and I’m not even going to touch the surface here. In general, up to an hour your body can cope easily on its own. Beyond that it is worth thinking about fluids and food. If I am heading somewhere really remote I like to take some emergency snacks, really just for reassurance

Carrying things for trail running

Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running
Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running

Bumbag, rucksack, waistbelt, ultra vests, hydration packs, bottles – all these are just a short list of what some people choose to use. I don’t use a hydration pack for trail running as it encourages me to carry too much weight. I prefer a sports bottle, this lets me see how much I have drunk to, and also on much longer runs, in two bottles plain water and one with a flavour and/or electrolytes.

My 15 year old bumbag is still in service and in this I can carry waterproofs, basic emergency kit, food and water. If I need more (going further, or worse conditions) then I’ll take a small rucksack. On the occasions I go multiday running I’ve never needed anything bigger than 35 litres.

Gadgets for trail running

I’m using the term gadget here, some are occasionally essential, some are luxury, I’m mentioning them here just to think about. But, don’t ever carry anything you don’t know how to use, otherwise you’re carrying weight for the sake of it.

Map and compass. If you have any doubt about where you’re going, these are an essential.

Headtorch. If you are either going out in the dark, or might be at risk of getting stuck out in the dark, this is an essential. (Chris Baynham-Hughes did an extensive independent buyers guide to head torches)

Watch. Time, pace, place, heart rate, altitude, tide. Watches can measure all sorts of things. Sometimes this can be a motivator, sometimes it can be a de-motivator.

Emergency kit. First-aid and survival blanket can be useful, both for yourself and others you may need to help. I always carry these on the trails out of personal preference.

I’m going to repeat myself, especially about the Map, Compass and Emergency kit – KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!!

Competitive trail running

Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014
Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014

Trail running is more loosely organised than other running disciplines. Events are a great way to go to places you wouldn’t go to normally, meet new people and test yourself (if that’s your thing).

Trail races can range from 5km upwards. Beware though a 5km trail race will be much tougher than a 5km road running race.

My experience is that trail races are really friendly and run by people who are passionate about running off road. Ask questions will get you lots of answers!

Training for trail running racing will follow the same type of sessions as road running. Build a stamina base, then building pace and power with shorter speed sessions or on hills or (yuk!!) both. Flexibility (stretching or yoga) will help you enormously with recovery and speed.

Finding more information

There are some good Facebook pages with heaps of information about trail running. The two most popular UK best pages are Trail Running Magazine and The Trail Running Association.

As a resource for competitive world wide running, Mud, Sweat & Tears is hard to beat as a website.

Runners World is still the most readily available running magazine in the UK, but is more focussed on running generally rather than trail running.

Finally…have fun trail running

I trail run because it’s fun. Normally not to be the fastest, not to beat people, nor to be fitter. I love the journey and trail running lets me make more of my free time, exploring the places I want to go. Every now and then I like to race, just to test myself, and by every now and then I mean less than 5 times a year normally. 

Trail running shouldn’t ever be a punishment (it was for me at school). 

If you remember running around outdoors as a child, running with your legs out of control down a hill or through high grass and those memories make you smile then have a go.

Let trail running take you new places, let it make your body feel alive and your mind clear. Sometimes you’ll exert yourself and it’ll be hard work. Sometimes it’ll be cold, windy or dark. Sometimes you’ll see a deer, a sunrise, sunset or a view all of your own.

Learn to enjoy the ups and downs, make it fun and enjoyable.

So, my formal review, not very formal, and the need to change anything, not really for me. I always need to remember that I really really enjoy trail running.

Here’s a video I made a couple of years ago to explain trail running in Coed y Brenin, a forest near home that is better known for mountain biking at the moment. Hope you enjoy it.

Where next?

So what do I do after Marathon des Sables? It all feels a little black and white at the moment.

Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire
Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire

As I try and claw my way through the post event blues, which is a common occurrence, I know I need to focus on something big in the future. It’s like trying to step over a massive gateway! I’ve run a good bit since getting back, but I have to admit to running being a massive struggle to stay consistent with at the moment.

As much as I am really enjoying not having the early morning running sessions, and getting on top of a few jobs here and there, as well as starting a new business I am feeling hungry to compete. Though I’m not ready to go all out again at the moment.

I’m fortunate that I have Trail Marathon Wales on 21st of June, I’m looking forward to this, but I do feel a complete sense of fatigue at the moment. It’ll be a trial to get round, but I want to get out there and race. It’ll be brilliant to see my tent mates Andrew and Phil again who will also be at TMW. We’ve all had post MdS niggles, so I’m sure the social catch up will be not so subdued!

Depending on how TMW goes I’ll look to run Race the Train in Tywyn in August as it is part of the Welsh Trail Running Championships, but it really does depend on how TMW goes! After that it is the Wye One Way Ultra Race in Septemnber and then the OMM in October. That’ll be my big event year done.

It's all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire
It’s all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire

I’ll probably do the Meirionnydd Winter Fell Series for the first year ever too. Just to keep the legs turning over.

Other than that this year will be about exploring and enjoying the hills around home; and preparing for a personal challenge I’ve set for 2015. As far as I know, this challenge has never been attempted before, so I’m going to keep a little quiet about it!

One thing though, MdS has made me appreciate the smaller things, a whole lot more. Like the can of coke on the long day it’s amazing what little things can arrive in technicolour when we appreciate them!

Rawhide

The horizon line that inspires me
The horizon line that inspires me

I remember very clearly when I was 24, my friend saying “you’re going to have to grow up”. This was when I’d just bought my new mountain bike. In his eyes, in the south of England, in the mid nineties adults didn’t mountain bike.

Of course, being stubborn, I carried on with mountain biking. And, as I’ve explained before it was the bike that brought me to live in North Wales and ultimately run the Marathon des Sables. Two wheels have always been fun, and the more I’ve reflected on MdS, the more I’ve realised that its even simpler.

I like moving.

BMX bikes rocked
BMX bikes rocked

As children we’d ride bikes round and round the same route. We’d learn and know little tracks, jumps, kerb edges, alley ways and back lanes really well. I lived on my BMX for at least 6 weeks each summer holiday for at least 5 years. From early in the morning til it got dark, and sometimes beyond we’d be repetitively skidding in the same place, wheelieing between shadows, lampposts, encouraging each other up and down steeper hills, bigger jumps, higher bunny hops, riding by a stream eyes shut, or disastrously, the night before a maths exam riding down the biggest hill cross handed. Looking back there was no reason. It was fun, no winners, no losers in a competitive sense, just the joy of living in the moment.

My very first road bike in around 1990
My very first road bike in around 1990

BMX bikes gave way to road bikes, I found my love of surfing along the edge of the lactate threshold, the moment where the noisiest thing is your breathing, your heart or the wind.

All that repetitive stuff creates something that is now known as physical literacy, and a healthy heart. I know I played ball sports and racquet sports (I’ll miss out accurate stone throwing) and that does develop a different kind of physical literacy.

Bikes, pedal or engine powered are lovely, I like the feeling that moving on one creates. That sensation in your inner ear, leaning in, trimming the bike, lifting the front wheel, whipping the back wheel or free-wheeling with the wind blowing is something I can always fall back on. It is moving quickly so close to nature, so part of nature that is enjoyable. But, as a mode of transport you’re not in a steel box, people talk to you empathise with you. Also, if you drift from the now, there are consequences that tend to keep you in the now.

I got into simple multi-day mountain walking, not instead of bikes, as well as bikes. The camp craft, the endurance, the touching nature really hit home with me in my mid teens. An escape from daily life and the extra responsibilities I had due to terminally ill parents. On reflection this taught me self reliance as well as new skills. Scrambling up Cneifion Arete with a big pack, having crossed the Carneddau was a big moment in my teens. I suddenly felt capable of surviving in a very primitive way. Add a few ropes and some more skills and new dimensions are available, bigger mountains. Never a rock climber, more a mountaineer, but that sounds too grand. Just journeying through mountains, immersed in some remote spots.

Then boats came in to play, sailing, paddling, navigating. This was a new challenge, moving on a dynamic environment. I was fascinated by being able to predict the water height on the sea at any given point, the variance the weather made. And on water, to move effectively there needs to be a different reaction. A sailing boat on a different point of sail, with a different sea way needs to be helmed differently. Kayaking, journeying on white water initially seems even more chaotic, but the more you learn, the more you become experienced, again through repetition, the more reaction can be instinctive. The now becomes more fluid [sic] but still a journey, a movement.

“Big black” in Morocco

And then trail or mountain running, far more basic, far more heart, lungs and legs and far simpler. But, all the skills come together in a different way. The exposure felt is more immediate. I can  compare travelling in the sub-Sahara on a motorbike to my recent experience running. A lot is the same, managing hydration, fuel (for you or the bike) and keeping moving, and I enjoy the journey in very different ways. Probably, even though much harder, on foot is more enjoyable.

I still ride bikes, I still visit the mountains, I still love boats. I like doing these things solo, I love the feeling of self dependence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete misanthrope and I do love sharing the experiences too, but to get the most I like, if not need to be exposed, on my own. That original enjoyment of lungs, heart and wind being the only noise, the movement being beautiful things.

Many see my pursuits as dangerous, but that’s different to the view I hold. Managing danger and fear is about experience and judgement. And when you’re in that moment there is an element of purity that is really grabbing. I have and do walk away, the hills, rivers, forests and oceans will be there another day. So far I’ve never regretted keeping going. I’ve regretted stopping, but that is a momentary regret compared to the alternative. Yes, having children has taken the extremes out. Those moments where a wrong decision means instant injury. Big jumps and steep gradients are mighty thrilling, but the adrenaline can come in different, more controllable ways.

Chris Baynham-Hughes is a very experienced mountain ultra runner. In his blog here he goes through the iterative process of defining risk. In many cases we experience risk when it is managed by someone else, at an event where the judgement of Event Directors either cossets or denies you your own responsibility in decision making. I agree with Chris the more experienced you get, the more intuitive risk judgement becomes and therefore in many ways the better mentally we’re prepared to handle experiences.

The video here is from Daz who has kayaked solo down Everest and in the last minute sums up, for me, the feeling that pushing yourself in whatever format “is”. Surfer, climber, cyclist, runner or even businessman the question Daz asks is one we should ask ourselves, regularly.

“When was the last time you put yourself in  place to open yourself up to the passion and the grace and the silence and the noise of the now” 

I’m fortunate to have met some very inspirational people, especially in the years I have lived in North Wales. And now I recognise that not “growing up” is something that is challenging to those in the mainstream.

Being responsible doesn’t mean not having fun; it can do if that is your choice. But to live a satisfied life, to live in the now is so important. None of know when the now won’t exist for each of us. Experiences are so subjective, it’s not possible to judge whether one experience is more satisfying for one person, than it is for another. 

How we express ourselves is limitless, music, art, sport, gardening, religion, what ever.

For me feeling the “passion of the now” needs me to move, to take responsibility for my own movement, use my own judgement. The mechanism doesn’t matter. The journey and the experiences on the way are far more exciting to me than the destination.

When my parents died I had a choice-join the gravy train and conspicuous consumption. Or move and consume life. It went a bit blurry in there for a while, but the Marathon des Sables has really reminded me… 

“Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Keep movin’, movin’, movin’, Though they’re disapprovin’, Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!”

Marathon des Sables – a race review

I’ve sat looking at this blank page for ages, nearly two weeks now.

Normally I can sit and the words fall out of me; I know the shape of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Perhaps this should be the review of the 29th Edition of Marathon des Sables. “Speechless”.

I was motivated to do the event because Cancer reared its head in my life, again. 2014 was a good year for lots of reasons that I’ve blogged about before. But the event has done more, been more, than I could ever have imagined.

If you’re sat contemplating a multi-day ultra event, and like I did, have doubts about whether you could physically complete the course you’ll gloss over what lots of people write in their blogs. I did that too. 

Yes, Marathon des Sables is physically hard, but not impossible. Yes, Marathon des Sables takes commitment and sacrifice. I can say with confidence though, you will learn more, feel more and be affected more by this event than you could ever anticipate.

Honestly, there is no point since the start day where I’ve thought “I’d never do this again”. Lot’s of MdSers have said “done”, “ticked off” and “no way”. I asked myself as I crossed the line would I do it again, no doubt at all, if the opportunity arose I’d say emphatically “yes” in a heart beat.

I’d anticipated that crossing the line, those final ten steps I had focussed on for two years would be emotional. It wasn’t. That’s not to say in the preceding 40 hours of running I hadn’t been happy, sad, angry, stubborn and every other emotion. Just what I had expected at the finish line was different to reality.

There are no words, pictures, videos or talks that I can use to explain fully what happened. I’ve written the day by day accounts, but the bit inside me, the emotional bit is still, a month on, just out of reach to me. It’ll have to wait for another day!

The race itself is so amazingly well organised. Yes, there is a bit of queuing, but lets put that in perspective. There are 1000 people in the Sahara, running. The visual impact on this environment after the bivouac has gone is really minimal. A few tyre tracks and a dark 10 foot diameter circle. Pretty impressive. Everything is packed in, set up, handed out, taken down and taken away. There is solid medical cover that wants you to finish. The stories of what Doc Trotters did to keep people running are amazing, and totally contrary to what you’d expect. Even what we’d consider worthy of a few days off work don’t raise an eyebrow. Patch you up, encourage you and get on with the event. Mind blowing, inspiring stuff. 

Marathon des Sables 2014 track log
Marathon des Sables 2014 track log

The route, changes, new formats are tested. Veterans of the race express their feelings about the good and the bad, the ease or difficulty of the various stages. But that’s irrelevant to me. My MdS, my race looks like a wiggly line near the border with Algeria. It’s not even half as long as one tank of fuel in my car and yet it represents more to me than any car journey.

And my daughter summed it up nicely, as only a nine year old can. I now know that I can run from home, in Dolgellau to Oxford. Why I would do that, or want to do that I don’t know. Why I would do that in the heat carrying my own stuff, I don’t know. It’s barking mad when written like that.

But I could. And that is my lesson!

First Thoughts on Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014

I’ll be tapping away at the keyboard over the next little while – roadbook in one hand re-living and journalling what has been a sensational, personal and stunning trip. To get the small stories, the feelings and the successes written down might take some time. I need to reflect and understand all the smaller bits, but I wanted to get down something more immediate.

Marathon des Sables 2014 took two years coming, and blew my socks off.

And though it was the death of a friend that put me on the start line, I have taken so much more from the race than I could ever have anticipated.

MdS 2014 stage 1
MdS 2014 stage 1

The Sahara is simply stunning, it wasn’t my first time, but to travel on foot through this environment was new to me. As a journey, it is so pure I find it hard to never think of doing it again even whilst skin is raw and the body recovering.

Whilst there are minor parts of the experience that are quickly forgotten – queues, THAT music and the various aches, the memories are already transcending those small irritations. What I am left feeling at the moment is a sense of awe. Not in the every day awesome sense, but in the old fashioned way.

The logistics of running this event are impressive, the location and environment even more so. But, the people, all the people, with their own reasons and their own driven ambition make the event something else entirely. From the event team, bright and cheerful Commissaires, checkpoint Controlleurs, tireless Doc Trotters, the morning Berbers, photographers, pilots, film crews and of course the inimitable Patrick Bauer, there is nothing but enthusiasm.

The approachable nature of some of the best Athletes in the world mixed in with ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing is a heady cocktail.

The emotions were stretched, magnified and refined. Then thrown or blasted back at us all. A genuine unity between all those who toed the line on Day 1. A shared sense of gratitude as each runner made it into bivouac each night, and finally across the line. For those that trained and sacrificed but didn’t make it there is a collective, genuine regret. Some suffered more than others, and experiences will be remembered forever. The lessons handed out in five stages or less can be brutal and defeating, but there are positive things for us all to learn.

The simplicity, human body against a harsh desert, the gratitude for a simple can of Coke, the night sky, the open places and the people have left me humbled. An immediate legacy is gratitude for things that I had perhaps grown complacent of, and a greater value put on smaller things.

And finally, whilst all the above are beyond normal, I can’t ignore tent 96. We laughed, hurt and lived together through an amazing event. We all made it in our different ways. You’re all a very special part of the journey – Thank You.

Tent number 96 toeing the line before the first day.
Tent number 96 toeing the line before the first day.

Thank you for getting me to the start line

This is going to be a bit wordy and no pictures.

The last two and a bit years have been an adventure. Some good, some bad. I wouldn’t be here without the help of few key people, and before I line up on the start line for Marathon des Sables 2014 there are a few thank you’s needed.

Alongside all the supporters who have donated, who I thank for their donations and support there are a few people who need special recognition.

I guess it starts with Dave and Chris Bursnall, you made a good lad and without you two my motivation wouldn’t be as great as it has been. 

What Dave and Chris started Aila continued. Thanks. 

Pete Burnsall – in the nicest possible way it’s all your fault.

From here Harry Townsend secured me a place to run MdS with Myfanwy Townsend Melanoma Research Fund. Encouragement and support from Harry, along with Michelle Baker working with supporters and publicity. A great little charity.

On the supporters front Matt Williams at The Sports Performance Clinic n Bristol, Chris Charlwood at Simple Intranet and Bounce Foods – you guys have made an enormous difference to the fund raising.

Along with The Sports Performance Clinic , Sam Whitley at Bodhi Movement and Zac Laraman at Snowdonia Sports Medicine have both had their part to play in keeping my body from falling apart whilst I punished it.

James Fell at sixpackabs for a great interview.

Meirionnydd Running Club, for keeping me motivated, Go the Goats! Sandra Williams for keeping the fire in my belly to go long and Ifs and Es Richards for all the advice, support, inspiration and a few miles together.

My very good friends Jeremy and Kim Brett, through their own tough road keeping me supported and accompanying me to events. I’m sure Jez and I will share a 15 year old single malt in the hills again this year. 

The guys and girls at TORQ and Freestak for all the introductions to great inspirational people in the trail running ultra world. Especially Stu Mills for his TOTAL preparation tips.

Martin Like for great equipment advice at Likeys, and putting on a really good ultra in the Brecon Beacons. Likewise Matt Ward for putting the very excellent Trail Marathon Wales on right next to my home – what more inspiration could I need.

Nigel Bulmer at the Bikers Retreat and Danny Crookes for their insight into previous events.

There are loads of people who give the occasional – “hows it going?”, through to some good solid banter who have kept me straight and true. Thanks to all of you and the parts you’ve played in keeping me inspired – Matty Brennan, Nikki Maclean, Jon Bauer, Katie Cole, Nick Moore, Robin Shapland, Bill Turner and Kerrie Langendoen to name the first into my head.

Other competitors have also been good sounding boards and experiencing a shared journey. I’ll thank you and the race organisers at the end 😉

Finally, a special thank you to Michaela, Ciara and Katie. Your tolerance of a creaky Dad on creaky floorboards as I crept out for the pre dawn sessions. Not batting an eyelid when I was out on long weekend runs or at events. For walking up and down my legs, or sitting on me for more weight on the foam roller, keeping things normal and a strong nose have made my life easier and that in turn has made getting to the start line so much more achievable.

Thanks all. Now got to just make it to the finish.

Reflections

Details, details – passport numbers, final kit checks, sore bits. Definitely taking up a lot of my thoughts at the moment. 21 days to go. Trying to control the doubts.

But also, reflecting.

Pete’s death of melanoma started the process of seeing Marathon des Sables on Trans World Sport some 25 years ago. An inspirational challenge that I saw as well beyond my ability.

And tomorrow I’m 40, and that isn’t a milestone.

I’m thinking my Dad would have been 67 (we shared a birthday) and this birthday will be the 20th one without him. I think of my Mum’s 40th birthday – her hair just growing back after chemotherapy and her last but one. Cancer killed my parents half my lifetime ago.

I know how cancer smashes through lives.

The summit of Foel Offrwm.
The summit of Foel Offrwm.

We all hope it won’t be us, but it will, the statistics say so. And melanoma, that’s the cancer of our generation – those born from the 60’s – 90’s. When in the 50’s every one smoked and then Lung Cancer was a battle 20 years on, “we” in middle age now are going to have to deal with Melanoma.

Research is speeding up, cures are getting better.  But we’re still behind on what is preventable.

What are you going to do? I’m going to run across the desert to raise money and awareness. A good deal of catharsis too.

Last night I took my daughter up a hill for a beautiful sunset. Walking. Running. Slipping. Sliding. Laughing. Living.

Value the living.

When it’s gone, its gone.

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