Saturday, 7 July 2018

Race Report: Buff Epic Trail Marathon

This race took a pretty long time, so I think the best way to try write about my experiences is to divide this race report into different sections. Enjoy!

As most of you reading this probably know, I’ve been plagued with an ankle injury since March, which has meant my training has been inconsistent since then. And out of the 5 races I’ve entered this year (including this one), I’ve only managed to finish two. Considering how tough this race is, it’s not ideal. What also probably didn’t help me is that in the 4 weeks leading up to this race, I didn’t do too much in the way of training. The first week was full of exams, the 2nd was travelling through Amsterdam and Barcelona, the 3rd week was when I started my ‘Pyrenees Family Experience’ and as I was trying to ‘find my feet’ as to what was going to be expected of me during my time in Barbastro (a city at the foothills of the Pyrenees), it didn’t leave too much time to fit in any training. And the 4th week was the week leading up to the event. In total I managed to run 85km during that time. So while a four week taper probably isn’t ideal for a marathon distance race, it did mean that when race morning came around I was feeling fresh and ready to go! And when I got to the town of Barruera and saw all the big ‘Buff’ logos everywhere, along with the bright red ‘Skyrunning’ inflatable arch and towering mountains all around me, I realised this was the real deal. All the butterflies in my stomach just flapped a lot harder. 
With my ankle being such a risk in a race like this, one of the things I really wanted to do before the race was to see a physio or the first aid team and get my ankle strapped because I tried to do myself the night before. It was terrible! It was so bad that when I finally managed to find the first aiders half an hour before the race began, they laughed at it. But with their help, my ankle felt more secure and I was feeling more confident that I would be able to finish this brute of a course.

The race

The course was in a loop format in Vall de Boi and featured 3300m of climbing over 42 km, reaching a height of 2600m and never going below 1000m. Going into this race I had never been that high or had climbed that much in one go. I also hadn’t reccied the course, so I had no idea what I was in for. I did know it was going to be rocky though, as I had been for a hike with the family I’ve been staying with as part of the Family Experience in the (Benasque) valley that was next to Vall de Boi. With that in mind I thought it might be possible to complete it between 5 and 6 hours. I went into the race with the strategy of taking the downhills easy, so I didn’t hurt my ankle, and pushing the uphills and any flat sections really hard. Now that I’ve finished it, 5 hours would’ve been possible if I didn’t get injured back in March and I was in full fitness (the winner finished in a bit under 4.5 hours). 6 hours should’ve been do-able but unfortunately the race didn’t go the way I would’ve liked. 

Section 1 (0-16km)
When there are almost 500 people starting in a small area, the first couple flat km’s along a river were slow as everyone spread out. The climbing didn’t really begin until we went through Boi, a little village 5km into the race. 
This took me about half an hour and I had just finished 125 calories of my Tailwind, and I was aiming to consume my usual amount of about 250 calories an hour. As I begun the first major climb I was beginning to feel signs of GI distress (which pretty much means pain or discomfort in your stomach/intestines), with my stomach hurting a bit. I wasn’t too concerned though as I still had lots of energy and I figured that the discomfort would soon pass. This was also the point where I was super happy I brought poles with me, the climb was steep! (Looking back on the race, I genuinely don’t think I could’ve finished the race without them. They provided so much help on the climbs and gave me extra stability on the descents). It was an unrelenting single-track climb through mountainside forest before we finally burst through the forest and onto grass. 
The top of the first climb. If you look really closely you can see Barruera!
And whereas in Australia I think most people wouldn’t use poles in a race that’s the marathon distance, in this race the majority of people were. I used the poles to my advantage during the climb and managed to grab a few positions, but I lost most of them when we started going down. The first downhill of this race made me realise why this race was chosen as the Skyrunning World Champs two years ago. It was steep and difficult. It was all grass, and because 100 runners had already been over it by the time I got to it, it was super slippery. Even with using poles to help me slow down and help with my ankle stability, I fell over on to my butt multiple times! But at least I saw other people around me falling over also! It was also really cool that during the first 10km’s we crossed the road a couple times and ran through a couple of villages, and there were people cheering, ‘Venga’ and ‘Vamos’! I think the support we received from spectators is something that will stay with me for a long time. Thankfully the descent was over fairly quickly, but as I was out in the open during this section I felt the effects of the sun (it was probably in the low 20’s during this time). Naturally I felt pretty thirsty, so when I stopped going downhill I tried to drink some water, but when I did I felt nauseas and like I wanted to throw-up. At this stage though, I could still drink my water and my Tailwind and still run. The section between 10 and 15 km’s was pretty flat and all runnable on smooth forest trails, but I think it was around the 14 km point that I couldn’t stomach anything anymore. I walked into the next aid station at the 15 km point, doused my head in water as I was feeling incredibly hot, forced a couple bites of watermelon down my throat and mentally prepared myself for the ginormous climb ahead of me.

Section 2 (15km-26km)
The climb from 15km up to an ibon (mountain lake) was the 2nd hardest climb of the race. We ascended about 800m over 6km. During this time we left the forest and entered into open mountains, and it took my breath away.
Jaw dropping scenery!

I wasn’t able to move quickly up the climb. I walked the entire time and had to constantly stop and lean on my poles to rest as I had no energy. I also tried to drink some water, but it was in tiny sips. After each sip I had to stop walking and wait for the feeling of wanting to throw-up to go-away and for my head to stop feeling dizzy. I almost considered drinking a lot of water in one-go to force myself to throw-up, but in the end I didn’t. At the time I didn’t think throwing-up would make me feel better later on, but writing this now I’m not sure if I could’ve felt much worse. Perhaps that might be an option to try next time if I get GI distress again. As I wasn’t able to drink much, and the temperatures were climbing towards 30 degrees and sunny, I dunked my head or hat in the water at every stream I crossed to try and keep my core body temp down. Anyways, just as I was nearing the ibon I reached the first of many ‘tricky’ sections. The trail went across the face of a mountain, so we weren’t going uphill for this section, and we had to cross a patch of snow about 100m in width. This was the first time I had ever run on snow when it was summer, and it was super slippery. The snow extended for about 200m down the length of the mountain and it you fell down the length of it, it wouldn’t make for a fun climb back up. And, you probably guessed it, I went for a slide. My shoes lost traction, and while I was sliding down on my butt I managed to steer myself to the other side while probably only going down about 30m. What the unfortunate thing was though, on the other side of the snow was lots of loose rocks. So with a lot of effort and energy, and with a bit of help from a fellow runner pulling me up as I was nearing the trail (which had skilfully stayed on rock that wasn’t loose), I was back on course and I finally reached the ibon. I took 5 minutes at this aid station to sit down and rest, trying to take a few sips on my water and Tailwind and just generally trying to get some energy back. As after the ibon, we had some flat trails to ‘run’ along (I couldn’t, I didn’t have the energy so I just walked) before starting the steepest descent thus far. From 23-26km we dropped about 800m. The first km of the descent was mental. There wasn’t a trail to follow, just some flags in some grass in a field that was about 300m wide. And within the grass were a whole bunch of rocks. On my way down there were three occasions where somebody yelled either ‘rock’ or ‘lookout’ in Spanish (I had no idea what they said), and I would turn around and look behind me and you could see a rock about the size of two fists put together just picking up speed and going own the mountain. It was intense. I get the feeling that if one of those rocks were to hit someone, it would cause some serious damage, especially since they tended to bounce about head height. But after the first km the gradient lessened a bit, and we had a rocky, single track to follow down to the next checkpoint at a refugi. At this point I still wasn’t able to run, my legs seemed to have no life in them.

Section 3 (26km-33km)
The checkpoint at 26km had a cut-off time, and when I went through it I was only one hour under. This is when I realised I would be racing against the clock for the first time ever. I had never had to worry about cut-off times in any of my previous races, but with 9 hours to complete this race, it was something I had to be concerned about! After munching on a couple of orange slices, I decided I needed to get a move on for what was the most difficult climb of the race. 800m up over 3.5km. It just seemed to go on and on and on. And after many false summits and many stops so I could rest, I finally reached the top, and man, was the view worth it! 

A picture really doesn't do this area justice
Being 2600m up and looking out over a whole bunch of 3000m peaks all around me was stunning! Standing on top of a mountain that I just climbed was the best feeling ever. It couldn’t last forever though as the clock was counting down and the most technical part of the race was up ahead, a ridge. And when that ridge has ropes and mountain guides on it so you don’t fall, and when a fall would mean a serious injury, and when one of your ankles is bad, you could say that I was pretty scared and I was very slow. I always thought it was so cool seeing Kilian Jornet just sprinting along epic ridges in videos, but when I was on that ridge, my respect for those athletes who can move quickly over technical ridgelines increased dramatically because I could not move quickly, at all.
The small flag in the distance is the aid station at the top of the climb
As I was nearing the end of the ridge and I started to go down the mountain, my gut threw one last curve ball at me. It became painful. Pretty much every step I took felt like someone was stabbing me in the gut, it hurt, a lot. It took me so long to reach the aid station at 33km as I couldn’t run any of the downhill.

Section 4 (33km-42km)
After spending a few minutes at the aid station forcing some Tailwind down my throat as I genuinely felt I had no energy at all, it was the final push to the finish line. I had about 2 hours to do 10km and it was all downhill, so I felt pretty confident that I would be able to make it to the finish in time. From the aid station I started walking on super smooth trails that were at a gentle downhill angle across farmland, and hearing the cowbells of cattle was so cool! We then dropped back down into forest, went through a small village, and followed some flat trails and dirt roads along a river before entering the village of Barruera. By the time I reached the river, I was cooked, even though I hadn’t run a single step. The temperatures were hovering around 30 degrees, the trail was exposed to the sun and I didn’t feel like moving, all I wanted to do was jump in the river and go for a swim, I was feeling that hot. I get the feeling though this last section could’ve been done really fast. I would like to think around 45 mins for 10kms is reasonable, the trails were that nice. Those 10(ish) km’s ended up taking me 1.5 hours. But finally, finally, I saw the finish chute and the arch, and I crossed the line in 8 hours 26 minutes and 39 seconds. I had finished! 2.5 hours slower than I would’ve liked. In a lot more pain than I would’ve liked. But I had finished! I could now call myself a Skyrunner! And I had somehow ran up and down mountains without spraining my ankle once! It was an emotional journey where I was mostly in the dumps rather than riding highs, but it was worth it. I am a Skyrunner!
The amazing finish line feeling!

Post-race musings
I’m trying to think up of reasons why I potentially got GI distress. Might it have been due to me not consuming food with my runs in the prior 4 weeks? Maybe. Could it have been due to the altitude? Maybe, but considering the majority of the Alpine Challenge was over 1200m I don’t think it was. Could it have been the fact I was using Tailwind instead of my preferred Australian drink, Trail Brew? Maybe, but I used Tailwind in the exact same quantities at 3 Peaks and I didn’t experience any troubles. After thinking it through for the past week, I still have no idea what caused it, which is annoying as it may happen again. But I’m hoping that because I never had issues with GI distress in the past for races that are the marathon distance or longer, that this race was a freak occurrence and hopefully won’t happen again 😬 The pain was bad enough though that I genuinely think if I managed to do well at the Manx Mountain Marathon and 3 Peaks I probably would’ve dropped out. But because I DNF’d at so many races this year, I had a point to prove to myself which I think was the reason I made it to the finish line, 2.5 hours later than I thought I would. I also surprised myself; to be able to climb and descend 3300 metres and be on my feet for 8.5 hours while only consuming around 700 calories, when it’s recommended that I should’ve consumed around 2000 calories boosts my self-confidence a little bit. When I’m down in the dumps, I can keep going.

I think this is probably the second-hardest race I’ve done yet. When I sprained my ankle early on in the Blackall 50 race last year, the pain of my ankle was worse than the nausea and pain I felt in this race. However, the Blackall 50 was over in about 4 hours. For this race, I was in the hurt locker for 7 hours and the only time I actually felt good was during the first half-hour. Which leads me to my mixed emotions. I’m really happy that I managed to finish my first ever Skyrace which had more climbing in it than I had ever done before and that I managed to go the highest altitude I’d ever been to before. To be able to call myself a Skyrunner is pretty damn cool. At the same time, I’m also annoyed at something I couldn’t change. Due to my gut, this wasn’t the best performance I could’ve done. I am a competitive person and to only finish just half an hour before the cut-off sucks. But hey, as the only Australian running in the race, I was the first Aussie across the line! (I’ll take the little victories when I can 😉)

Once the race had finished I went back to the medical tent to get my strapping cut off and I got told that even though my ankle wasn’t in pain, it was still quite swollen, and they thought I might have a small tear in one of my tendons. So, at this current point in time, I’m going to give my body the rest it so desperately has been crying out for. In 3 weeks time I’ll be back in Brisbane and I’ll be able to see my physio and I’ll be able to get proper treatment. I think I can confidently say I won’t be doing another marathon or ultra-race before November. Hopefully if rehab goes well I’ll be on the start line for my second Alpine Challenge, and I’ll be aiming to run my first 100km event. The march towards getting on the start line for the Hardrock 100 continues.
A massive thank-you to all the volunteers out on the course. Your cheers really helped me to continue going! But I have to give my biggest thanks to Oscar. Thanks for getting up at 4.15am on race morning to drive me to Barruer, thanks for waiting around for 8.5 hours when there wasn’t much for you to do and thanks for driving me back. Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to race!

The Skyrunning Novice

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Saturday's Adventure in the Yorkshire Dales: 3 Peaks Fell Race

Phen-Y-Gent in the background. Photo thanks to Daniel Connolly

Due to pesky things like uni assignments and exams, this “race” report will be a bit shorter than normal and nowhere near as long as the last one.

The reason why I’ve titled it as an ‘adventure’ rather than a ‘race’ is to accurately reflect my mindset going into 3 Peaks. I didn’t think of it as a race per se, more like an opportunity to be in a beautiful part of the country and to potentially be a fell-race finisher. This race is also the unofficial beginning of the fellrunning season and also one of the biggest races of the year in terms of participation, there were close to 900 people at the start line and I wanted to be a part of the atmosphere! It's also got a lot of history, with this year being its 64th running of the event.
3 Peaks’ slogan is - ‘The Marathon with Mountains’ and people often describe it as 3 fell races with a cross-country race in between. What that pretty much means is, the 3 climbs are tough but everything else in between is kind of flat (in terms of elevation), so very much runnable, like a cross-country race. 

The race has about 1600m +/- over its 37km
When the shotgun goes off to signify the beginning of the race, I start out conservatively. The first km is along a road and then the race turns onto a dirt trail, that slopes gently upwards but is littered with rocks, which meant I took it easy to avoid hurting my ankle. From 3km to 6km is the climb up to the first peak, Phen-y-gent. Being so early on in the race and not being that steep meant I was able to run up all of it, and it was a good feeling being able to pass a couple people along the way, but what goes up must come down. And I took the down part super easy, even if it was just mostly grass. I got a bit annoyed when I was passed over and over, but I just told myself, ‘it’s not a race’, which took the sting out a bit. The part between 8-20km was flat and the trail was smooth, but knowing there was still two climbs to go, I took it easy, taking in the views of beautiful green rolling country side (and all the little lambs that dotted it) and enjoying the sunshine (which felt amazing!)
Smooth trails for less chances of rolling an ankle, yass! Photo thanks to David Belshaw
The only thing of note to happen was losing my shoe in some mud around the 13km point, so I pushed the pace a bit harder for the two km’s after that to make back that bit of time lost putting my shoe back on. At 20km the 2nd fell race began, crossing a creek and onto a super boggy ‘trail’.
Crossed a creek and about to go up and up and up. Photo thanks to Estelle Willis

Actually, to call it a trail is bit of an exaggeration, more like a faint line in the grass/bog/marsh that everyone follows, which also happens to be the shortest way to the top of Whernside, the second peak. This for me was also the hardest point during the entire race, I wasn’t tired aerobically during the climb but due to my ankle I haven’t done any strength training in the gym for the last 6 weeks, so my legs were super tired by the time I reached the top (I mean can you blame me though, the gradient was over 40% according to Strava for parts of the climb, I had to use both my hands and feet to get to the top) 

Once at the top though, as I wasn’t feeling puffed, I was able to break back into a run, that is until we started going down. For context the 24th km drops 258m, the 25th drops 107m, so it was steep and so very, very rocky. I hadn’t been over this course before the race (I live 3 hours drive away) and if I had known this descent was a part of the race, I probably would’ve had second thoughts about toeing the start line. For someone with an injured ankle, it was brutal, but I almost made it. The 26th km was when it started flattening out and just when I saw the trail starting to get less rocky, pain shot up my left leg and I knew that I rolled my ankle, again. I couldn’t believe that I was able to get down the hardest, steepest part only to roll it just when it was getting easier. I then hobbled to the side of the trail, sat down, drank about half a litre of my sports drink and hoped after a couple minutes the pain would subside a little bit. Which it thankfully did! I then relied on my past experience of spraining my ankle during the Blackall 50km last year, and walked when it hurt too much to run, and run when it didn’t hurt too much to walk. This mainly meant that I walked 90% of the last 10km of the race. Something that helped was the last climb up to the top of the 3rd peak, Ingleborough, 30km into the race and for whatever reason, my ankle didn’t hurt as badly climbing up compared to walking on the flat or going downhill, so I made up a bit of time there. Unfortunately, the last 8km back down to the finish line, where a decent amount of time could be made up, was the rockiest of the entire course, which meant I had to take it carefully and slowly, which frustrated me to no end. 
This is a photo of a person running along some part of the last 8km's of the course. See what I mean? It's rocky. Also, oww!

The only thing I was grateful for was that the pain was bearable. In the end though, I made it! 37.8km in an agonisingly slow 4:49:50, but after two failed attempts (at the Manx Mountain Marathon and Coledale Horseshoe) I can finally call myself a fellrunner! Thanks to all the marshals (there were over a hundred which is incredible 😮), the spectators (who gave amazing encouragement and some lollies) and the event organisers, it was an amazing day out! For those of you who are reading this and are trail runners, but looking to do a fell race, I highly recommend this one. Great atmosphere, beautiful scenery, navigation skills aren't required as you're able to follow the person in front of you and less than half the course is actually 'off-trail' meaning it's the perfect intro!

A very happy finisher. Photo thanks to Daniel Connolly
Coming to the end of April, I can definitely say that this isn’t how I imagined this year would be going. In my mind I would put in two solid performances at the Manx Marathon and at 3 Peaks, giving me a bit of confidence and some key areas to work on leading into my first A race of the year, the Buff Epic in Spain, which is in 8 weeks’ time. But it is how it is, and I’m super grateful that over the past few weeks I’ve been able to travel to some amazingly beautiful places and been able to meet some super cool people, all because of my running!