Val D’Aran by UTMB
“Good luck” “Enjoy it” “Smash it” and a plethora of other encouraging messages poured in during the lead up to this race and whilst they all come from a great place and of course they help in some way, for the most part they are words with no context, no reference point and therefore sadly no real meaning. It’s tough, everything about this event was tough, right down to me sat here right now trying to put pen to paper, my thoughts in order, convalescing, processing, call it what you will, it’s still very tough.
Do not get me wrong, I am massively appreciate of all the support I get but for right or for wrong not many (if any) will really understand what they are wishing for or about. That doesn’t make either of us any better or worse than the other. This is my path and I have chosen it and I would not change it for the world, it is a not a path that everyone should tread on.
5:30pm July 9th and Rob and I are on the start grid of Val D’Aran by UTMB a 162km non stop race through the heart of the Pyrenees taking in over 10,000m of elevation. (Everest stands at 8,850m) Over 1,000 other humans beings from different nationalities, different backgrounds and with different goals surround us. Many are noticeably nervous, some take pictures, others make small talk with fellow competitors. I have just kissed goodbye Holly, Mum and Dad, what an honour to have them here, they alone are the reason I will be back here in a few days and cross the finish line where I know they will be. Other friends Luke, Ivana and Ian have come to wave us off, they will race tomorrow, they know the ultra life.
AC/DC pumps out as the commentators remind us that this is the challenge of our lives, this course will test us in unique ways but they deliver solace in the fact that they will also be waiting for us to return and to “achieve our dreams”. With 4 minutes to go the mood changes as “Conquest of Paradise” starts to play. It is synonymous with the start of UTMB (The Mecca of trail running) and is incredibly powerful, for a split second it hits me hard in the guts, I don’t want to cry but it cements the task at hand as I think “this is it, this is what I asked for, this is what I trained for, this is where I am most alive.” 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 Gooooooooo……and be back within 48 hours or we will give you a big fat DID NOT FINISH…….Loser!
When you start a race with over 1000 people it’s always going to be carnage especially after you have been stood on the start line for 30 minutes getting fired up on the atmosphere and nerves. I can feel my heart rate is higher than normal and as we hit the first of many 25%+ inclines and change our run to our well trained power hike Rob makes a comment about his heart rate being slightly high, I laugh and tell him I am the same.
We train together all the time, we spend hours together running in absolute silence, we have been doing this stuff together for over 5 years now. It works, we understand each other well, we read each other’s body language, there is no bull shit. We care about 1 thing, ensuring we both cross the finish line. In the lead up to the race many asked who would win. I can see the fun angle people have on it but I feel to a certain extend it shows a true lack of understanding of the task at hand and is in some ways quite insulting. From the moment we agreed to race this race my sole objective was to cross the finish line together the only thing that would not make the possible would be for one or the other to ask the other one to leave the other alone, the other would only do this if he thought it was the right thing to do. The is war and you win wars with a strong army not a strong individual. We both know there will be times in this race when we need each other, we will both have highs and lows, we both have a job to do for each other and remain committed to it.
The field is so big that it’s hard to stay totally together. As I arrive at check point 1 I have a look around for Rob but can not see him. I am not sure if he is in front or behind. I fill my water and eat and wait. 3 minutes later he arrives looking as though he has just walked out of the Dubai summer. He is sweating profusely, shorts, socks and shoes are saturated as he casually points out that no one else is. He is not in good shape and tells me to go on. I smile but say nothing, wait for him to fill his water, offer him some salts and we leave the checkpoint together.
The first half of the course reminds me a bit of school cross country, “fell running” you may call it, mainly through beautiful rolling grassed “hills”, peaks and streams and the remaining daylight we get as the sun sets and the first night drops creates some amazing views over this beautiful landscape that will be our playground the the next few days. It’s almost like a “welcome home” and “welcome to hell” in the same sentence. Ha ha.
At check point 2 I again can not find Rob for a while. I left him alone on the last stage on purpose. There is nothing worse than having someone baby sitting you when you are in a hole, you need to figure your own way out of it. He had no option but to move to check point 2 so I waited there. The night fall brought a drop in temperature so aside from eating and filling water I got out some arm sleeves and actually put my jacket on which lasted 10 minutes into the next leg before it went back in the bag never to be used again for the whole race. As I finished modifying my wardrobe Rob arrived and shared the good news he was feeling better. Amazing what a race this would be if the first 25km was anything to go by. He changed his clothes and we were on our way. I could tell he was on the mend, his mood was better, we talked about what had happened and were both somehow excited about the nightshift ahead of us.
Nights are a time to sleep, as the day ends our bodies naturally shut down. We were going against this simply complex human operating system just 4 hours into the race. It is something that we identified early on we had to train. There is no point in being able to run if you can not stay awake. We would do all night training sessions, stay awake for 36-48 hours so we knew what it felt like and how our bodies and also our minds would react.
With the field still thick and the night in full flow all you could see both ahead and behind was a single file line of head torches to light the way. It was almost magical. We went up in a line, we went down in a line, we weaved through trees in a line, we crossed streams in a line, like robots, like lemmings, like a whole load of weirdos each on their own but combined mission. We heard Spanish words, we heard French words but we rarely heard any English words. When we did it was like a celebration and a comparison of how we managed to navigate COVID travel restrictions to get to the race. Sometimes it is good fun to chat to other racers, other times their chat stinks, is negative and you immediately know it is not the energy you need so you either back off the pace or increase the pace to distance yourself from them. The opposite applies to when you find someone with good energy and you hang onto them for dear life. Just like life really, no time for dickheads.
11 hours, 55km complete, much fun had, spirits are high as we pull into a big sports hall which forms the next check point as well as a big feeding station and a place that has real toilets where I can part with my 5th shit of the race so far. I am shitting through the eye of a needle. It’s not overly discomforting and it is not noticeably disturbing my energy, I know it may long term if I can not manage it but I am relaxed, it is more of an inconvenience than anything else. We have some plain rice, a few cups of coffee and some sweet bread which we fill with chocolate. The combo mixed with day break gives us hours of great energy.
We split the race into 3 segments which on reflection is absolutely what it was. The first night on the nice underfoot, rolling hills, good pace, happy days. The day for which we target to get to the 108km check point where we know we get another hot meal and will also see Holly and Mum and Dad and then we know what the second night of these races bring…..but did we really know?
The course from 55-108km was beautiful, mainly because we could see it. The climbs were spectacular the terrain always challenging with various rock formations, forest sections and narrow ledges. It’s this that causes the most confusion for most people in that they can not really fathom 10,000m elevation and what that does to your average speed. The fact that downhill can actually be far harder and slower going than up hill and also take more out of your legs. What does 30% gradient rock really look or feel like? I wish I could put it into words or even have taken pictures that could explain it but none do. The only way you get to know is by doing, by experiencing, by living in these moments. The daylight brings light into every area of your mind as when you are hurting you just look around and see the beauty of this planet we are living on and smile and say thanks.
“You seem in good shape” Dad said at the check point that they were able to get to see us at. He was right, we were having the time of our life. More hot food, a wash our our feet, fresh socks and fresh batteries for our head torches and 40 minutes later we were out back on the course ready to attack stage 3….the final 50km to the end and 5 hours of daylight left. It’s hard not to analyse the course and set mini goals on times and distances, it gives you something to focus on but its dangerous, you risk paralysing your body an mind by overthinking things, getting it wrong or in your declining physical or mental state confusing yourself even more. 24 hours in 36 hours without sleep, 100+km in the legs you start to operate differently, it’s again hard to describe and everyone is going to react differently, it’s like me telling you how painful it is to break a leg, I can talk all day but until you experience it you will not know and even then pain for us all is different.
2,600m above sea level was the highest point of the course and as daylight closed out for the second time on our journey we made our way up this climb. With the end of the day and the increase in altitude we moved into the clouds which was something new for me and I fast learnt that clouds and heard torches do not mix, everything becomes a blur. And so the fun begins. Night one it’s easy to stay awake, day time piece of cake too, night 2 of these races is where it all starts to unfold, your mind almost starts playing tricks on you, your vision is impaired, your start to hallucinate. It can be very frightening for people the first time it happens, it was for me back in 2014, I freaked out, but like anything if you know what’s going to happen you can be prepared and in this case almost enjoy it.
The summit was ice cold and howling winds with cloud still scattered around, the underfoot insanely technical, it was a case of one foot in front of the other. There were people all over the place, just sleeping at the side of the trail, empty. We passed them and smiled in a way taking some energy that we were in better shape than them. It sounds savage but it is what it is, we did not rub salt into their wounds but in silence used their depleted state to boost our mind game. It was early hours of the morning and things were very feral, we were in full survival mode and as we descended to the 137km check point I remember Rob asking me what had happened to one of my poles as it was bent like a ski stick! I was confused at his question. I was confused on many levels. I had fallen asleep running and in doing so fallen over and twisted the pole around my body somehow. The hilarious part of the story is that Rob was behind me all the time and had not even noticed my fall. We were both fading very fast and knew we had 3 tough stages left…8km with a 900m decent, 6km and then a final 8km. This 3rd of the course was incredibly challenging and would have been mayhem to do in the day never mind in the dark and 30 hours into a race, it was beautiful.
We talked about the point which the body just shuts down and if we were close to it and what we should perhaps do to ensure we make it the 24km to the end. We were both hallucinating uncontrollably but both putting one step forward. There was never a doubt in my mind we would not make it but I was also trying to be smart to save us both. Rob suggested a 3 minute nap at the check point, I said “let’s treat ourselves with 10 mins” haaaaaa. I took out my phone (a smaller one to save weight for the race) which read 4:15 and I set the alarm for 4:25, before I had finish doing so Rob’s head was on the table and he was asleep. I tired the same trick but was somehow distracted by the noise in the check point, clearly wasn’t tired enough! What seemed like 10 minutes later I raised my head to check the time on the phone, 2:23! WTF I thought to myself, time had gone backwards! My phone had been on Dubai time when I turned it on but during the last 8 minutes had changed to Euro time! We could have been there a few hours if I did actually go to sleep, that’s maybe why I didn’t. Everything happens for a reason.
8km, 900m down hill……..3 hours! Yep, wrap your head around that. That was our lead into the penultimate check point which we were super excited for as it was another one with hot food and with that came coffee which we had only had twice on the course. Imagine our disappointment when we were told that we could have green tea but there was no coffee, dejected but two options, fight it or laugh we laughed as we sipped on some green tea and ate cold pizza until Rob said: “lets go, we are not moving forward.” This check point also had a portaloo which took my shit tally to over a dozen, so I got that out the way and we were off agin, not bad at all!
14Km between here and the end as a new day started to break, head torches went away and Rob wanted to stop to change his top. I sat on a rock as he changed and put my head on my poles, in doing so remembered some breathing technique I had recently read about and closed my mouth starting big nasal inhalation’s. I was asleep immediately. I heard Rob’s voice saying “shall we” and before he had finished the “we” part I was ready to go, a new person. He would later tell me that I had slept for around 48 seconds! Wow. They made us work all the way to the end. 700m climb in 4km, you add it up, then a small decent into a valley before another 300m, climb in 1.5km.
Everything at this stage was beautiful and exciting. I always knew that we would make it unless we sustained an injury that forced us otherwise but it’s hard and wrong to get excited about the end when you are not close to it. As we approached the final check point we could see the final climb and it was epic, I somehow wanted it to go on for longer as I knew at the top of this we had a 6km down and then this paradise would end. The sun was up, the cow bells ringing, I was walking on earth but could have been in another universe. Night hallucinations I knew a fair bit about but was interested to see if they would continue in the day. They absolutely did and it provided quite a fun game for us on the final descent as I would tell Rob what I was seeing and could describe it in great detail, much to his disappointment as his were not so vivid. I saw Dad about 5 times in those last 6km, always there with his InnerFight t shirt on supporting me, Mum popped up from time to time too. Although of course none of that actually happened and as I got closer to what I thought was them, it was not them at all, rather a rock or a tree!
There was no pain in my body, I didn’t need to shit for the first time in 2 days, I felt awake, I felt alive, I loved every single step, I thought we were running fast, the reality is we probably were not but at this stage running at any speed was running. As we got closer to the town, closer to the finish point we came across more people, all of them welcomed us with huge energy, clapping, sharing words in their native tongue from “courage” to “animals” to “incredible” and many more. It felt odd, we were nearing 40 hours and the winners had finished in 24 but the support of the crowd was huge. I thanked Rob for an amazing time, he said it had been fun. haaaaaa, I love this guy.
300m to go I spotted Mum and Dad on the road, god only knows why they like to be a few hundred meters from the end and not at the end but they had big smiles on their faces. People in cafes cheered us, people walking dogs cheered us. We could hear our names being called across the sound system. Holly and all our friends were in the crowds at the finish line. I was smiling, waving, thanking people, soaking it up I guess you would say. We tried to high five each other on the finish line, it took a few gos, we tried to ring the bell together, coordinating that was hard.
We hugged each other, the war was over, it was everything I waned it to be, I was thankful to share it with Rob. I hugged Holly, she cried as she told me how proud she was, as I write this I have tears in my eyes of happiness that she was there at the end. She was my focal point for the last 8 hours, she kept me going as I knew she would be there waiting for me and there was no way on earth I would let her down, she is my world, without her I am nothing.
Yes there were times when I thought “why am I doing this” and my response was similar to when I was hallucinating badly in the middle of the night, I smiled, laughed out loud and said to myself “because I love it and because of what I am doing right now there is a chance that someone will go out and do something great for themselves.” I had a version of that on repeat each time the thought of why came up. It’s not doubt, I never wanted to quit, in some sick way I wanted it to keep going, I was so messed up, so tired, in so much pain but still able to move forward, I wanted to see where the limit was, was there one, is there one…..who knows, we keep doing these things in that hope that maybe one day we may know, but will we? I don’t know.
39 hours 45 mins from the start of the race we cross the finish line, 169km, 10,000m elevation, less than 1 minute sleep and with that we earn the right to race at the Mecca of Ultra Running…..Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 2020. A right that over 1000 people set out to earn on the same day as us but over 50% did not achieve having either chosen to retire from the race or being timed out.
This sport is very unique, it is not running, it is exploring your potential as a human being, it is having a mindset that doesn’t believe in limits, that can stay present but think big at the same time. This sport simply demands you to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you have no clue who you are, where you are or why you are there, the answers to those questions only become important later on, in that moment, it’s one foot after the other. It’s what we were put here for, it’s living, it’s life.
Rob you are unbreakable…anything, any day, I will be there for you.
Holly, Mum & Dad….I have no words.
The whole InnerFight community…..you give me energy I can not explain.
For anyone that has sent me a message no matter what it said…..thank you, my comments above are not supposed to sound ungrateful, I am just trying to explain things the best I can.
For anyone that made it here to the end……..you have potential as a endurance athlete, this was a long one.
Until next time….No Weakness…..go for a run!