Sunday, 12 July 2015

Never say never again - Trail Verbier St Bernard round 2

I haven't written this blog for a year.  A marked decrease in my lung function plus an ankle injury lead to 2 DNFs in 2014.  My confidence took a beating as my performance seemed to be going backwards.  I convinced myself I should give up, that running wasn't for me anymore, that my health was being hindered by doing it.  Nobody wants to read about that.

This year didn't start well either.  A winter of persistent chest infections left my lung function at an all time low with no real idea from doctors or specialists what was causing it or how we could fix it.  I continued to run when I could, but even small hills left me out of breath, like someone was sitting on my chest.  I was disheartened, frustrated, angry, scared that things would never improve and that I should just accept it.  When I tried to push through, it hurt.  Not in the 'no pain no gain' kind of way, but real, physical 'this isn't good for me and I could be damaging myself' way.  My lungs were starting to define me, limiting me, stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.  When friends improved, I of course felt happy for them but also quite jealous.  Not because I actually wanted to train as hard as them, but because I felt that choice had been taken away from me.

But I am not willing to accept that this is my lot.  I'm only 42 for God's sake, not 92!  I have years left in me and want to live them to the full.  Anti-asthma and allergy drugs might take the edge off my symptoms a little, but there is definitely more going on in those lungs and if that cannot be cured then there must be something that can at least improve and manage them better, to avoid regular chest infections and further decline in their function.  Recently I approached another doctor who seems to agree with me.  We are trying a few simple things, including some amazing physio from Neil @ La Clinique du Sport, and are seeing results.  For the first time in 2 years there has been a marked improvement in my cough.  I have hope and that is a very important thing for my head.

My running has taken a turn for the better too.  Big hills and long distances still feel a lot harder than they used to do pre-pneumonia, but my breathing has got deeper, helping with inclines and enabling me to train harder again.  I'm running with friends old and new, keeping routes fresh, using chat and laughs as a distraction from tough runs, really enjoying my time in the hills and actually seeing some improvements on regular routes.  I feel stronger, positive, and although I am pretty sure I'll never get back to my previous levels of endurance, I can live with where I am now.

So it's at this point that the Trail Verbier Grand St Bernard reared it's ugly head.  I signed up for it after my last DNF, having done the race before in 2013 with my good pal Nikki.  She dragged me round it, the conditions were ridiculous and I absolutely said never again.  I signed up again because it carries UTMB points (just in case!), is a beautiful course, I wanted to prove that I could do it better, and my friend and fellow lung-issue sufferer Chantelle was up for it.  I mean, it wasn't really that bad last time was it?

The race starts in La Fouly, Switzerland, goes up and down several high mountain cols on technical trails, across wild countryside, through picture-postcard villages and ends up in the alpine town of Verbier.  Training had been going so well that I was super-excited for the race and had pretty much blocked out all the horrible bits from last time.  Race conditions were good, the snow had melted on the trails.  I was ready.  We stayed in Verbier the night before the race, taking the bus to La Fouly in the morning with other runners.  It was going to be a hot day, which didn't suit either of us, but not much we could do about that other than sun-cream up, ensure we took enough fluids and wore a hat.

We crossed the start line with several hundred other runners at 10am, heading up a long tarmac road, into the mountains to the Col de la Fentre then down to the first aid station at the Grand St Bernard pass.  From there it heads back up to the Col des Chevaux, down a long, valley descent to the almost-half-way aid station in Bourg St Pierre.  This first half of the race was hot and sweaty, so we took a few stops to cool off and dip our legs in streams and water troughs.  We met Chantelle's friend Jen, who was our roving support and chief photographer for the day.  Being a runner herself, she knew exactly what to do for us, running around getting coke top-ups and salty biscuits at the click of a finger!

We felt refreshed and good here, although due to the heat we weren't eating as much as we should, but instead relying on liquid-based electrolytes.  It was really hot and the next ascent was long and relentless, affording little shade along the way.  The route to the Col de Mille was tough, with two false summits, and I had a total sense of humour failure after the second.  Seeing the aid station at least another 5km away was more than I could cope with at that point, but Chantelle was kind enough to trick me into eating something and we kept going.  We stopped to help a guy that had the most horrible cramp I had ever experienced - you could physically see the calf muscles spasming as he rolled around on the ground in agony.  We poured cold water on his legs, fed him salts, stretched his legs and another runner offered a miracle gel which Chantelle massaged into his calves.  As he calmed down we left him, telling him that we'd tell the next station to look out for him.  In fact as we left the station some time later, we saw him walking towards us looking like a new man!  At least it had taken my mind off my strop and when we did eventually make it to the aid station we revived ourselves with some excellently salty soup and biscuits.  Salt was definitely what we craved for most of the day due to the heat.  I have no idea how hot it got, but at 7pm and 2500m it was still 26 degrees, so it must have been way above that for most of the race.

The long descent to Lourtier was hard work at the top but got more runnable the further down we got.  We were both suffering from a general lack of solid food by now, feeling bloated and uncomfortable, knowing we should eat but not fancying anything out of our huge bags of food.  We met Jen a few kms before the aid station and she ran down with us, trying to keep us trotting along.  At Lourtier we had more soup, forced down a few solid morsels and energy gels, and donned our headtorches ready for the final stretch.  We trotted off into the night, knowing that the end was almost in sight but that a hideous vertical km stood between us and that end.  The ascent to La Chaux is steep and relentless, switchback after switchback through the trees, with no airflow.  Poorly lungs did not love this section and we were slow and often out-of-breath, taking many breaks and having to go slowly to avoid a meltdown.  Things got a little easier as we came out of the trees into the cool night air, but alas the aid station seemed to have a trick of disappearing the closer we got.  It got really cold at the top just before our arrival, but held off until we got inside before changing into warm, dry clothes.  More soup and we were ready for the final descent.

With only 7km the end was truly in sight, but as per usual it did drag on!  Our knees were starting to feel uncomfortable from all the descending and the route still had a few sneaky uphill sections.  I was desperate to shave a few hours off my previous time, but alas the heat and lung issues had put paid to that.  However, we reached the outskirts of Verbier, trotted through the town to the claps of Jen and other late-night supporters and crossed the finish over and hour faster, so all in all I was still really happy.  I had survived the day, enjoyed the large majority of it and only had one minor breakdown.  Chantelle and I are so evenly paced and is a joy to run with, plus having someone with you that totally understands your lung problems it really reassuring for both of us.

Throughout the day I questioned whether I should continue running such long distances.  I originally got into mountain ultras because although I was slow, I adored hills and could keep slogging away for hours, so I was pushing my distance rather than speed boundaries and I loved that.  Now hills are hard and the more time I spend on my feet, the more tired my lungs become.  Endurance sports are tough in their very nature, but if your lungs perform poorly when stressed, is that a good place to put yourself?  Is that one challenge too far when there are so many other things out there I could choose to do?  I don't know; I love running so passionately and I am sure it will always be a part of my life, but my 60km days could be numbered.  I'll happily run 30 or 40km in training so maybe shorter distances are the answer, or at least races that last a good bit less than 16 hours!  I wasn't ready to admit that last year, but now I am getting used to the idea.  Anyway, my next challenge is the 6-day Transrockies run, 120 miles over 6 days in the Rocky Mountains with my wonderful Neverest girls.  Having never done a multi-day event or been to the States I am really excited to see how it goes.  Maybe that's going to be my new thing :)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Long time no see - what a lazy blogger

Crikey, I can't believe it's over a year since my last post.  Why?  Well it's been a busy year with our Neverest Girls project!  I guess most of you reading this will know about this by now, but for those who don't check us out at  To sum it up, 7 girls got together, chose a local charity to support (A Chacun Son Everest), had lots of fun raising money (€16,700 to be exact), went to Nepal, trekked for 2 weeks to Everest Base Camp and ran the world's highest marathon.  Phew!

Seriously, I'm making light of what was a thrilling, tough, busy, fun and fantastic year.  We worked so hard to raise that money, had a lot of amazing people supporting us and are very fortunate girls to have had the opportunity to experience all of that.  Nepal was beautiful, hectic, emotional and far tougher than we'd expected.  Altitude sickness hit most of us (although I was lucky enough to avoid it) and the weather at Base Camp itself was so bad that we had to evacuate at speed across an avalanche field, getting hideously sunburnt along the way.  And that was all the day before the race.  Anyway, full details can be read on the website blog so I won't repeat it here, but blimey, what an experience.  Thank god we had each other through all that - I know that I strengthened 6 wonderful friendships and that we learnt things about each other on that trip that we cannot repeat in polite company!

That was in May and on my return I was really looking forward to a summer of running, benefiting from being marathon-fit and altitude ready from Nepal.  The Everest Marathon itself wasn't tough because of the distance, but because of the snowy, rocky terrain.  I didn't push the pace very hard and as a result it didn't take long to recover on our return.  The altitude had not adversely affected my still sensitive lungs and I felt the best I had in ages during our time in Nepal, which was totally unexpected.  My lungs seemed to thrive on the clean air and got better and better the higher we went.  June was great and I definitely felt like the Chamonix hills and relatively low altitude were a piece of cake for running compared to Nepal.  My main aim for the summer was training for the North Face TDS in August and had lots of training planned with the girls throughout June & July.  However I took a tumble during the Chamonix Cross at the end of June, spraining my ankle, and this minor injury effectively wrote off my summer running plans.

It's hard to admit that my body takes longer to fix itself than it used to and I was convinced I'd be back up and running a few weeks later.  Unsurprisingly I had to cancel a long-time planned UTMB recce 3 weeks later, watching the girls run without me.  After a further 2 weeks I was just about able to run on the flat again, but downhill was really painful.  I basically attempted to cram-train for the TDS in a couple of weeks, taking lifts to avoid any downhill and not allowing enough time to taper.  Add to that a very busy working month and on race day my body and mind felt anything but race-ready.  Needless to say I did not finish the TDS.  I did complete 50km which I was pretty pleased with, but I was slow, tired, not eating adequately, ran out of water and my ankle did not feel at all stable enough to take me through the night.  The course was beautiful though and I will definitely return one day to give it a proper go.

3 months on and my ankle is finally getting there so I am planning one final race to try and boost my confidence.  I have to admit that I've been quite down in the dumps since the TDS.  After struggling with my health all last year, it's really frustrating getting injured in a year that I was so looking forward to and promised so much more.  My lungs are still an issue too, requiring twice-daily medication and no sign of the persistent cough leaving me, although thankfully my doctor agrees that running is good for them.  Whatever life throws at me, I am a runner now and I just can't stop running.  I really miss it when I don't do it and even when I'm injured, I can't let it go, which is totally counter-productive.  It's such a part of me and I love it too much.  I think only other runners can truly understand that.  Not running affects my mind even more than my body and it's a total base requirement for me.  I need it.

However, I know that I must learn to stop comparing myself to others and their achievements.  Everyone is different, my body definitely does not behave as it did 2 years ago, I can't push it as hard as I'd like to anymore and I should accept that and appreciate the fact that I am still here and still able to do what I love.  That's a lot more than most and I should be grateful.  Running gives me so much joy and I love the friendships I've made, places I've seen and courses I've conquered.  But it's a tough pill to swallow when I'm constantly reminded that many of my running friends are going from strength to strength, achieving great things, which clearly they thoroughly deserve.  I admit it, I'm jealous!  I want to be there myself, going bigger and better, not just congratulating others on doing so as I chase time barriers.  Yes I know that's stupid, after all I've been through, but I can't help it.  I've never been one to be satisfied with my lot.  I always want more, but I do need to accept my new limits.

So enough of my wallowing.  Tomorrow is another day and 2015 is another year.  I am going to Colorado for the Transrockies Run with the Neverest Girls and that is going to be awesome.  190km, 6000m+ over 6 days at altitude.  Bring it on!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

It's been a long time coming - The North Face CCC

When I started running with Nikki a couple of years ago, we barely knew each other.  At the time I rarely ran with other people, enjoying the solitude of running and thinking that it wouldn't really work to run in a group, all going at different speeds.  But meeting Nikki totally changed things for me, we enjoyed exploring new trails together and before long we started pushing ourselves further.  A year after my first marathon and I entered my first ultra - not much further than a marathon but the 50km Trail des Aiguilles Rouges with +-4000m.  The difference between that and a marathon felt enormous and I crossed the finish line really meaning it when I said "never again".  However, a couple of months later and with enough qualification points under our belt, we decided to go for the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) the following year.

The North Face UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) and it's associated races the CCC, TDS & PTL is a huge event, attracting thousands of runners from all over the world and is so popular that they recently upped the number of qualification points for all races and even then it's more than double over-subscribed.  Long before I started running seriously, the UTMB held a special place in my heart.  I gave my time as a volunteer for the event for two years and I just love the way it takes over Chamonix and how the town gets behind the runners every August.  At our first attempt, we failed to get a place in the CCC.  It wasn't really a big surprise, but still pretty gutting.  Nikki's boss thought she'd suffered a bereavement on the day we found out we hadn't got in, she was that upset!  With hindsight, it was probably a blessing.  We hadn't been running big distances for very long and had little experience of racing, let alone staying on our feet for more than a few hours at a time.  However our application was automatically carried over to the following year and in December 2012 we confirmed our places for this summer.

My battle with pneumonia started less than a month later and it put a bit of a dampener on things for a while.  Instead of spending the winter working on a good training base, I was barely able to walk for several months.  A special medical certificate is required for the CCC to be submitted by the end of May, so that gave me a focus.  I was amazed when my doctor happily signed me off, but knew that I was by no means in the clear.  I had started running again in April and by May was up to 20km or so, but the thought of 100km was terrifying.  Nikki and I ran the 60km Verbier Trail Grand St Bernard in early July, the difficulty of which came as a massive shock to me and I really struggled compared to Nikki.  Understandably, Nikki was concerned that my setbacks this year could potentially put her own CCC race in jeopardy.  However, Verbier gave me the kick I needed to knuckle down for a few weeks, work hard and do everything I could to make the CCC a possibility.  I had good reason to find things tough this year, but I still wouldn't give up my CCC dream without a fight.

A couple of weeks after Verbier, I started training hard.  My plan was simple - speed training during the week (fartlek, hill reps, intervals, tempo), swimming and pilates, then back-to-back long, hilly runs at weekends, with plenty of up and down.  I'd never doubled up on long runs before, but it was recommended to me by a few of my UTMB running pals so it was worth a try.  Although it did mean my weekends were pretty much taken up by running (which did not please the husband), I varied my routes and running companions and really enjoyed it.  The variety of mid-week training kept things interesting and, despite a couple of sub-optimal runs, I could feel myself getting stronger.  It felt good to taper off though and as race day approached, I knew I had done all that I could.

The build up to the CCC went on forever.  It was so exciting going to pick up my race number, watching them erect the finish line in the town centre, getting shopping bargains reserved for runners only and generally soaking up the atmosphere of a town with high expectations.  My mum came over, the sun shone for the first time in years for this week, I watched friends Rich, Kaz & Chantelle successfully finish the TDS and gradually got my head into race mode.

The CCC is named after the 3 towns & countries it runs through and covers 101km with around 6000m of ascent and descent.  It's the shortest of the UTMB races, but is by no means easy.  Nikki & I took the bus through the tunnel to Courmayeur on the morning of the race, meeting mum & Andy there, as well as several other faces we recognised who were also running.  There were 3 different start groups and Nikki & I discovered just beforehand that we were starting at different times - bang went our plans of running together!  To be honest we had discussed at length what would happen if we couldn't stick together, what if one of us was really struggling or injured etc and caused ourselves a lot of heartache over it.  If only we'd known it wasn't even an option!  Although I think those discussions had actually prepared us both well for running separately, so maybe it's just as well we went through that.

The atmosphere was electric, with the usual alpine race build-up of pumping euro-pop mixed with Vangelis.  The first runners left at 9am, Nikki at 9.15 and finally me at 9.30.  We ran round Courmayeur to the tune of hundreds of cow bells, saucepans, anything people could use to make a noise!  Within a few minutes we were warmed up and started heading up the first and biggest climb of the race, towards the Tete de la Tronche.  The headcount is pretty dense at the start of a race so there were a few annoying bottlenecks where we ground to a halt.  The terrain came out of a forest, across a meadow and onto an easy trail that clung to the side of the mountain, criss-crossing streams.  As I rounded a corner the sight of ant-like runners zig-zagging up the imposing mountain ahead clearly marked our way.  Ascending was always my strength in the past, but I had vowed to take it easy as it was only one ascent of many ahead.  I had a 24 hour time plan and summitted the peak and the first control 12 minutes ahead of schedule.

The next few km was an enjoyable downwards traverse to the Bertone refuge with fantastic views.  I maintained my speed, stopping briefly to scoff a bit of soup (tasty bouillon with minestrone noodles) and check my water level.  I had been eating well on the first ascent and wanted to ensure I kept that up for as long as I could, as it was inevitable that I would struggle to eat later on.  My trail snacks of choice for the day were apricots, dried bananas, cashew nuts, a variety of bars and a couple of gels, keeping the latter for energy emergencies only as too many definitely upset my stomach.  Another traverse followed the side of the beautiful Val Ferret to the Bonatti refuge at 22km, where I made up a bit of time but then lost it by stopping to refill water, refuel and visit the toilet.  I slowed down a little en route to the control at Arnuva, taking it easy on the descent and getting passed by numerous runners.  Descents are definitely my weakness and I really don't enjoy the hammering it can give your legs, especially the knees.

I had been warned that the Grand Col Ferret ascent was a bit of a bugger, but I really enjoyed it, again regaining a few places and getting my time back on track.  The summit marked the crossing into Switzerland and the views back towards Italy were stunning, however the weather was completely different on the other side, cold, foggy & windy so I didn't hang around.  I checked my phone briefly and read a lovely text from Nikki's fiance Alan which really spurred me on.  I sent a quick message to Andy, asking him to bring a few extra things to Champex and headed straight down the 1100m descent towards the familiar village of La Fouly.  The weather made my lungs very unhappy and I coughed all the way down.  I really should have stopped and put a buff round my face, because I was starting to feel this was the beginning of the end of my race.  However once I did so at La Fouly, things improved significantly, but I did stop there for quite a while, scoffing bananas, cleaning my face and vaseline-ing up.  I didn't get my headtorch out, which was a daft move as it got dark soon after leaving La Fouly and I had to stop and fumble around under a street lamp.

We headed back into a forest for a while and then out through a few small villages.  I was motoring now, loving the relief my lungs were feeling from the buff, refreshed from a nice break in familiar surroundings and enjoying relative flatness on the trails.  But then the ascent up to Champex felt tough and went on forever.  I knew Andy would be there and I just wanted to be there NOW!  Arriving in Champex was such an important milestone and it was ace to see Andy & my friend Lucy (with an excellent flag!), but the heat, atmosphere and smell inside the tent was unbearable - probably enjoyable for the spectators, but pretty hideous for several runners I spoke to.  I had missed Nikki leaving by a few minutes but it was great to know she was still going strong.  There was a dreadful accordion-effect keyboard player, runners and spectators everywhere and it was hard to concentrate on the job in hand.  I needed to eat, clean myself, get changed (in full view of far too many people) and get the flock out of there!  I managed to stick to my planned stop time and although it was so lovely to see everyone, I just couldn't wait to get out of that tent.  Like a mirage in the desert, it was gone and I was back out into the dark and peace of the night.

We skirted round the edge of the lake, through the village and back into the forest.  The route followed a wide, easy fire trail and then started ascending up towards Bovine.  This was one of the few parts of the route I had run before in training and it had felt so steep previously, so I was dreading it.  Thankfully in the dark it felt much shorter.  I was struggling with both my stomach and head on the way up, stopping for the toilet (and having to fend off an overly helpful fellow runner who followed me to say I'd gone the wrong way!) and feeling really tired.  I downed a caffeine gel to try and wake myself up, but it had a limited effect.  I was half an hour behind my schedule at Bovine as it had become apparent that my schedule didn't actually include the planned stop times.  After negotiating a rogue cow at Bovine (ironically!), I pushed on towards the Col de Forclaz and Trient.  It was clear that my headtorch batteries needed changing, but I stuck in the middle of a pack that kept the path well lit.  However I was really struggling to stay awake on this section and I was starting to slow down.  I changed my batteries at Forclaz and when I got to Trient I was 50mins behind my schedule and just 40mins ahead of the cut off.  That was a big shock and I totally panicked, allowing a minimum stop to top-up water, go to the loo and grab some easy snacks.

Apart from my drowsiness, the ascent to Catogne was lovely and the starry night which met us at the top made it worthwhile.  However, the descent that followed to Vallorcine was definitely the worst part of the race for me.  It was steep and slippery and the worst terrain to be falling asleep on!  I thought I was going to fall off the side into a ravine, I was completely terrified.  Once I made it into the forest, I was so tired that I seriously contemplated getting my emergency blanket out, lying down and having a sleep.  I thought if I could sleep for 5 mins that it might save me!  At the same time I remembered how close I was getting to the cut-off.  I told myself that if I made Vallorcine with 30 mins to spare, I would carry on, otherwise I should stop.  I made it 80 mins slower than my schedule but with 35 mins to play with for the cut-off.  According to the deal I made with myself, I had to carry on.  I got the volunteers to make me the strongest coffee they could possibly make, literally about half a jar of instant coffee in my cup, downed it, topped up my water and left the tent, knowing exactly what was left to do.  I met a lovely English guy called Pete as I left Vallorcine.  He was diagnosed with and beat cancer last year and that was his reason for doing the race.  If he could do it I thought, then so could I.  All thoughts of quitting were now firmly extinguished.

Pete & I chatted and shared wine gums as we headed for the Col des Montets.  Flegere seemed a fair distance away and the cut-off still pretty tight so I pushed on ahead of him and up the Tete aux Vents.  I had run down this many times, so knew how steep it was, but going up wasn't as bad as expected.  I was so hungry but the thought of eating did not appeal and I nibbled on a bar just to keep the pangs at bay.  There was a traverse to the control and eventually I could see Flegere.  As it got ever closer, I knew the final cut-off was not going to be an issue and I got there with half an hour to spare.  Knowing that I would finish, I burst into tears in the tent!  I suddenly felt really emotional as I realised what I was going to achieve.  I have run the descent from Flegere many times, but it felt longer than ever and my knees were not at all happy, so I had to walk a lot of runnable sections.  I passed Chalet Floria and joined the Petit Balcon Sud, where my friends Rich & Steph were waiting and walked down with me for a while.  Then as we reached the outskirts of town, I saw Helen S jumping around like a mad woman.  She ran with me along the river, past the sports centre where we saw Helen McG & Kaz and up onto the high street.  From there on the atmosphere was like nothing I'd ever experienced and was way better than ever expected.  I felt like a celebrity as friends and strangers alike shouted my name and clapped me home.  As I rounded the final corner I had to catch my breath as I was on the verge of tears, running up the final straight and across the line to a roaring crowd, just under 26 hours since my journey started.

So many friends were there to meet me and I could not believe that I had finally made it.  Nikki had made it across the line about 50 minutes previously, meaning she was about 35 minutes faster than me.  We were so overwhelmed by the finish line, people were asking us questions but we didn't really know how we felt, what we wanted to do or if we wanted to eat or drink!  I went for lunch with friends, but it was wasted on me, then collapsed into bed for a few hours, still in all my smelly running kit.  Nice.

A week later and I'm doing surprisingly well.  My legs hurt after the race, but a good massage from the hubbie seemed to work and the following day I was walking with no issues.  I did ice my knees in the evening as they felt very sore.  I had a few blisters, but no broken skin and absolutely no chaffing anywhere else.  The worst thing was aching shoulders from carrying all that mandatory equipment for 26 hours.  All in all, pretty good!

I am incredibly proud of myself for making it round, particularly after the year I've had, for keeping going when it got tough and for only considering quitting because I wanted to avoid hurting myself.  I'm sad that Nikki & I didn't get the chance to run it together, but I owe her for preparing us both for having to run separately and for never giving up on me.  She also ran an excellent race and I am so proud of her - I really couldn't have done it without her.  Obviously I said 'never again' on the finish line.  But clearly we are already planning our next move... ;)

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Trail Verbier Saint-Bernard - a kick up the backside

6th July saw my first major race of the season and my only long race prior to the Ultra Trail CCC in August - the 61km Trail Verbier St Bernard Traversee.  Training had gone well, or so I thought, and although I wasn't feeling super-strong I knew I had run that distance twice last year and not struggled at all.

Nikki, Alan & I drove the hour from Chamonix to Verbier the night before the race, staying in the town's old nuclear bunker-come-hostel underground below the Sports Centre.  The online reviews were terrible, but for 25CHF per night including breakfast, helpful staff and  free entrance to the gorgeous indoor & outdoor pools, it was way better than expected.  We turned down the offer of 'horse' for dinner and ate a massive bowl of pasta in town before packing our bags and getting some shut eye in our triple bunk 50-bed dorm.  The next morning everyone seemed to have set their alarms for 6am and after breakfast we walked through town to get the bus to the start line, 1 hour away in the pretty village of La Fouly.  It was a glorious sunny day which promised to be very hot.  The start line atmosphere was as highly charged as usual and after bumping into my neighbour Francoise and downing a strong coffee, we were ready to go.

We headed uphill right from the start, gently winding up a valley at first, then cutting up onto the hillside.  It felt very similar to some of the Chamonix ascents I am used to, but which admittedly I had done none of this year.  I found it tough right from the start, puffing and panting up the hills where previously I would have been zipping up them.  Nikki and I were sticking together, but I couldn't keep up with her.  The first climb was a big one, up to 2700m at the Col de Fenetre, which was way higher than I had been since my pneumonia and I could really feel the altitude, for the first time in my life.  We started to see snow, heading into it, past a beautiful glacier-blue lake and onwards uphill.

The Col de Fenetre also revealed the next shock of the day - the scary, long, deep snow descents.  We had been warned that there was a lot of snow on the course, but the organisers seemed very proud that they had managed to preserve the route, mentioned at the briefing that there were ropes on the course to help us over the snowy bits and did not make it clear how hideous they might be.  We tried at first to run, but it was deep, steep and almost impossible to stay upright.  Others had started sliding down on their bums and it seemed the only other option.  There was a single, thin rope that finished a few meters down the slope.  I tried to hold onto it and inch down, but it was impossible to keep hold of the rope without gloves and I didn't fancy slicing my hands open.  So I let go and let gravity take me, trying to slow my speed with my feet and poles and trying not to crash or be crashed into by anyone.  I am a big fan of sledging, but not without a sledge!  It was ice-cold on my bare skin and my flimsy running shorts did little to protect me.  The bottom of that descent could not come quickly enough.

Thankfully it wasn't far from there to the first control point and aid station at Grand St Bernard.  Despite only being 13km in, I was already struggling.  My stomach was playing up, causing me not to eat enough and I just had no energy.  I had a few bites to eat, went and changed into my longer running tights (in preparation for more snow) and headed off again.  There was another ascent to the Col des Chevaux, followed by 2 more horrible long, snowy descents.  By the third one we were so pissed off and our buttocks in such pain, we just wanted it to stop.  That final descent was the worst one, so steep it was terrifying trying to get across to the middle of the 'piste' to find the best route down, and so many massive boulders en route, sticking out of the snow.  It was almost impossible to check your speed, without risk of injury.  By the end we had ice-rash on our buttocks and the early signs of frost-bite in our fingers, which took several hours to dissipate.  Utterly ridiculous and, I felt, totally irresponsible of the organisers to allow.

I was broken by the time I got to the 27km aid station in Bourg St Pierre and really wanted to stop there, but after a big bowl of pasta and a toilet trip to try and sort out some nasty chaffing(!), I knew I should carry on.  I was miles from the finish, it was more hassle than it was worth to stop and there was no way Nikki would let me anyway.  It was boiling hot and the start of the long ascent up to the Col de Mille had virtually no shade.  The terrain was easy-going mountain trails, but again I couldn't keep up with Nikki.  This seemed to be a never-ending col: when you got to the top of the high point on the horizon, there was always another in the distance.  It was soul destroying.  Finally we got there and right at the very top the sun and heat gave way to cloud and cold.  I was coughing a lot by this stage and had to have a puff on my inhaler at the aid station which caused a first aider to rush over and ask if I was OK.

The descent was runnable at the top, but quickly steepened which made progress slow.  In total we dropped 1400m over 10km and the beautiful sunset turned to dusk as we rolled into the aid station at the 49km point in Lourtier.  I had already decided that if I made it here I would stop.  I wasn't enjoying myself - I hadn't been all day - I was lacking in energy and motivation.  The station at Lourtier was poorly organised and they didn't seem to have much food left, clearly because we had taken so long, but it was still disappointing.  Nikki had done an amazing job to stay strong and keep me going, but this meant we had taken much longer than expected and we were right near the back of the field.  Then somehow, after a desent rest and patching up of feet, I decided to continue.  We were 12km from the end, surely I could manage that, even if I just walked it all?

It was dark by now and getting cold, so it was on with the thermals and headtorches.  It wasn't long before I wished I had listened to my head and quit at Lourtier!  Basically the path went straight up a long, steep hill - the equivalent of a vertical km over 5km.  Initially I had to keep stopping while Nikki pumped me full of gels and I got my breath back, resting frequently.  Then I seemed to find my rhythm and started stomping onwards and upwards.  It was yet another ascent of endless finishes that never came and it took us hours to reach the top at 2200m.  I have to admit it was slightly comforting finally seeing Nikki looking as knackered as me!  Suddenly we were freezing and had to put on all of our layers, using the patio heater and toilet hand-dryers to attempt warm ourselves further.  My headtorch had old batteries and the beam had been fading on the way up, so I changed them for new ones and we headed off, desperate to keep moving and warm up again.  Nikki decided to follow suit and change her batteries soon afterwards, but somehow didn't manage to change them all, so her beam was pathetic and she had to run in front of me, using my torch to light the way.  It was good knowing that this was the last leg of our journey, but again the descent was steep and seemed to go on forever.  Finally we stumbled into Verbier at 3am, a whopping 17 hours after we started.  There was no energy left for a shower and after collecting our warm clothes, we collapsed into our bunks.

I was absolutely over the moon and amazed that I finished that race and had the lovely finisher's t-shirt and less-lovely shredded-buttocks to prove it.  It was the first time in years that I truly did not enjoy a day's running.  A few weeks later and I'm still not sure why it went so badly, but suspect it was a culmination of several things: not enough training (3 months total since illness), weak lungs after pneumonia, unhappy stomach leading to not enough eating en route, tough conditions, or maybe I was just having a bad day?  What I do know is that I would not have made it round without Nikki believing in me, pushing me to continue and being ever so patient.  I must have been a total pain in the arse to run with!  We spent time analysing things the next day while lazing at the outdoor pool and in the jacuzzi, so it wasn't all bad!

Next is the CCC and I have to admit that Verbier knocked the wind out of my sails and gave me a bit of a rude awakening.  I have been training hard again for 2 weeks but only have another 3 weeks to get myself into some sort of reasonable state.  Nikki and I have to face facts that it's not my year and that she may have to leave me behind in order not to miss the time barriers herself - she is so strong and must not fail because of me.  But I am doing everything possible to try and stop it from coming to that.  Back-to-back weekend training runs are boosting my confidence again, intervals and hill work are attempting to address my speed issues and I'm working on my breathing in the pool, trying to push my lungs and boost their capacity.  I'm even planning on some altitude training at the Aiguille du Midi.  I honestly don't know if I will finish the CCC, but I am proud to even make it to the start line this year and if I do finish, that would be a bonus.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Running is the best medecine

So it's been a fairly weird few months, recovering from pneumonia and trying to get back to normal.  My friends and family know how active and impatient I usually am, but for once I have listened to advice, listened to my body and taken things really easy.

I got out of hospital on 6th February and my aim was to get back to sport by the end of March.  Initially I could barely walk around the flat  - the 1000m of altitude in Chamonix really made breathing so much harder than when I was in hospital.  It was also a long, bitterly cold winter and I was advised not to venture out when it was cold as my lungs wouldn't cope well with cold air.  Over a few weeks I started venturing out and gradually increased my walks from the stairs in my building, to the end of the driveway, to a circuit of my local lake, with stops at every bench.  I felt truly pathetic - I was used to leaping up mountains for goodness sakes!  Swimming felt good though and was a great way to ease myself back into exercise, as the humidity and weightlessness both helped.  A long weekend to Iceland (maybe not most people's top choice during recovery!), made me feel great too, as there were spas and steam rooms at every turn.

By the end of March I was still struggling with a persistent cough and the rubbish weather, plus being back at work full time was sapping my energy.  I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress.  Pneumonia effects people so differently, it was hard to gauge how long I would take to recover and I was probably comparing my fitness to that pre-illness.  Happily, just a few weeks later, things started to improve.  I attempted my first run, with husband Andy just in case I keeled over.  Surprisingly I barely coughed.  Within a couple of weeks I was already managing 10km and amazed at how little my lungs and legs seemed to complain, despite over 3 months of virtually no exercise.

I won't deny that I didn't have bad days, days when I struggled, when a cold meant my lungs felt like they were filling up again, when I panicked that the pneumonia was returning, when I felt angry and frustrated that my big running year was being eaten into, when the crushing tiredness returned and I simply had to go back to bed.  I didn't touch a drop of alcohol for over 2 months and needed 10 hours sleep minimum.  I didn't feel like me for a long time.

My next goal was easily defined.  Medical certificates for the North Face CCC race had to be obtained and submitted by the end of May.  So with the help of my best running buddies at the Chamonix Ladies Running Club, I ran regularly and started cranking up both the mileage and altitude.  Amazingly, my doctor signed my certificate, almost without question.  I couldn't believe it!  Who knows if I will make it across the finish line, but at least I'll make it to the start which, 4 months ago seemed highly unlikely.

I ran my first race on 19th May, the 18km Trail de Vallee de Joux and loved every muddy minute of it, then 24km in the snow with the ladies last weekend.  I have made great new friends through the running club, trained with British sprinter Dwaine Chambers and the Chamonix Alpine Endurance team and had my butt kicked on my first road-biking outing of the year as my lungs coped poorly with the hills & cold.  I am finally satisfied with my recovery speed, can see how far I have come and have stopped beating myself up about bad days.  I am pretty sure few people would try to do so much so soon after returning from a serious illness.  Quite frankly I am happy to be alive, but also determined to make the most of each day.  And I am lucky to have such great support around me to help me do just that.

It's just as well I am feeling so good as a group of us are planning to run the Everest marathon next year - see our Facebook page  But more about that later!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Oo la la, what a palaver

It's been quite some time since my last post, due to initial laziness, a planned rest period and finally thanks to a spell in my local hospital.

Recovery from my race in October was really good and I was happy to end my racing year on that note.  With Nikki & Ali away and the year winding down, I decided to take some time out of training, instead walking the dog, swimming, with just a few short runs pencilled in.  November was also my 40th birthday.  I had a big night out with loads of my friends and was rather pleased I was one of the last standing at 4am, although only just!

We did plan in one fantastic run at the end of my birthday week, taking in part of the marathon route up at le Tour.  Snow had already fallen and we were actually trying to take films for the Marathon Talk website.  We had a lot of fun doing it, but alas my filming was the wrong way up and they couldn't use them!  Running were Cham marathon veterans myself, Nikki & Helen, with our friend Laura reluctantly joining us as she felt she wouldn't be good enough.  I'm pleased that she soon proved how wrong she had been.

One of the things that has made me love running was meeting and running with like-minded people, realising that training does not have to be all work and no play, and that you can learn so much from people who might approach things differently to you but have found things that work for them by experience.  We had been trying to persuade Laura to come for a run with us for a while as we wanted to share this with her.  I totally understand her reluctance - I have felt that myself with friends that I know are better runners than me - but I got over that hurdle this year and realised how much I got out of it.

We started off at Montroc, up to Tre le Champ, down to le Buet.  Despite having not run since the marathon in June, Helen still put us all to shame, trotting up the hills while we puffed behind her.  We cut up to the Col des Possettes, hitting quite a bit of snow on the way, stopping for some filming, then hurtled down the front of le Tour which was sunny and just so much fun.  Laura has signed up for the Cham marathon this summer, so I know this will be one of the first of many training runs together.

My plantar fasciitis had been playing up since the middle of the summer, so I finally went to see the doc about it, got some silicone heel cups and physio prescribed.  It's a funny old condition and he didn't seem overly concerned about it, but knowing a friend who has had it really badly, I wanted to make sure I tried to do something about it over the winter.  I have been icing, stretching and massaging it daily as well as wearing a night splint which stops the familiar morning pain.  It really doesn't hurt to run or walk on!  There is a lot of discussion about the cause - inadequate cushioning in shoes, too much cushioning in shoes, tight calves, standing on your feet all day etc etc.  Personally I know the day mine started and it was when I attempted a tough training run with a lot of steep uphill.  I think I simply strained the affected ligament while trying to compensate for knee pain in the other leg.  But who knows.

The winter started well.  Nikki & I finally got kitted up for ski-touring and we managed a few short ski-tours, just up the piste power walks, but it felt like great hill training.  I had a lovely day with 15 other girls, saw Kilian Jornet training and even did a night time tour with Leila dog who loved chasing me on the ski back down!  I was also doing a bit of X-country skiing.  I had a lovely first day in Italy with Ali and her boyfriend Eric and had since been doing evening routes with Ali in our head torches, again chased by Leila.  After a boozy Xmas, I gave up drinking for January, confirmed my place in the CCC in August this year and was looking forward to my fittest year ever.

Then on 10th Jan I started feeling a bit rough.  Everyone had the flu, friends I knew had been knocked out for a couple of weeks, so I wasn't really surprised.  But it felt like more than flu, so when I couldn't get into work on the Monday, I went to the doctor.  Then again on the Friday.  I was coughing, my throat felt raw and I didn't eat anything for a week.  Andy was away so I even had to call in dog walkers as I had no energy.  After 10 days I was then struggling to breathe so, getting scared, I decided a second opinion was called for.  Luckily for me a lovely doctor lives downstairs and he was kind enough to pop up and see me.  After a quick check-up he suspected pneumonia and called an ambulance straight away so that I would have oxygen on the way to hospital.  After scans and x-rays I ended up in and out of Intensive Care for a week, eventually coughed up a massive green lump, went through 5 different types of antibiotics, oxygen fed to me for most of that time, picked up an allergy and finally escaped hospital after 17 long days.  The doctors were baffled how I caught it, why it was so persistent and didn't want to let go of me and why so many relatively young, fit, healthy people were being admitted with it this year rather than the usual bunch of oldies.  I am back home now and starting the slow path to recovery.  The doctors were reluctant to send me home, back to snow, cold and a higher altitude, but my breathing is fine and I am sure I'll stop coughing soon.

Interestingly, Ali who suffers from mild asthma, has just been advised not to run or X-country ski in the base of the valley at the moment due to all the pollution.  I had been doing lots of just that recently - maybe it had an affect, on top of the flu?

I'm clearly quite concerned about my health now.  Not an ideal start to a year that is going to contain my biggest race to date as well as several others.  And will I have any long-terms issues with my lungs, breathing, sport?  But I am going to take things super slowly, not even attempt to run for weeks, maybe months, build slowly, float around in the pool and when strong enough try the turbo trainer with zero resistance.  At the moment I can barely make it round the flat so I know it's some time away yet!  Hopefully once Spring is here I will be strong enough to start training again, fingers crossed.  Right now I am just happy to be alive, surrounded by great friends and family and putting my feet up for the first time in years.  At least my plantar fasciitis is getting a rest - every cloud!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A spiritual experience?

Despite already running 3 races this year, I decided I wanted to squeeze in another before the season was over.  I couldn't run the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges with Nikki due to work commitments (I had vowed never to run it again last year anyway!), so after scouring the UTMB qualification list I picked Les Défis du Jubilé.  This race in Switzerland was only an hour's drive from home, covered an area I'd never run before and allowed you to pick your own distance between 7 and 71km.  I was really up for trying to increase my longest distance to date so it sounded perfect, plus the race date coincided with the 7th anniversary of my Dad's death and it seemed like a fitting tribute to the man that first got me into running.  Unusually for UTMB points races it was also surprisingly cheap and easy to enter, not requiring sign-up months in advance, so Nikki's boyfriend Alan also signed up less than a week beforehand.

As race-day approached, I felt unprepared and somewhat concerned - I had never run that far before, training had been less than optimal and I had been trying to ignore suspected plantar fasciitis in my left foot.  It had been 2 months since my last race and during that time I had done a couple of decent bike rides but only 2 runs of 20km+, everything else had been short and sweet.  Holidays had meant a lot of eating & drinking (to the tune of a couple of kg) and the week of the race was spent fighting off a nasty cold and stomach bug, so I wasn't sure I'd even make the start line.  However with a couple of days to go I felt well enough to run and, knowing I could bail out easily along the way, I decided  to give it a go.

Alan and I drove over on the morning of the race, catching 3 deer and a badger in the headlights en route.  We made good time to the start at the Abbey in St Maurice, picking up our race numbers (mine was 313 and 13 is my lucky number so an excellent omen I felt!) and rather unusually collecting our medal in advance.  We passed on the option of a commemorative cross to display the medals in, but made sure we had the required map and directions, listened to the pre-race spiel, packed our bags and headed for the start line.  I knew the race was somewhat religious as it followed a route called the 'chemins biblique', with each stage or 'défi' ending at a church, but I have to admit I wasn't expecting the blessing we received from the local priest at the start!

At 7am it was still dark, but we opted not to carry torches as we knew they'd only be required for a short time.  As we headed up the steep woodland path it was tricky to find your feet unless you were lucky enough to be next to someone with a torch, but even then the fallen autumn leaves were slippery after the recent heavy rainfall.  I tried a couple of "let their be light"s to the gods above, but nothing happened!  The short climb soon opened out onto a meadow path and the sky started brightening into the clear, autumn day that we had been promised.  We were treated to snapshots of mountains in the distance as we wound our way up to the first control in Verossaz at 1hr, where they served gorgeous spiced tea.  We headed uphill and into a forest, traversing the hillside and passing numerous waterfalls, to the next control at 2hr in Mex, where I was disappointed to find chocolate was the only snack on offer.

From there there was a steep, slippery descent and I was glad I had decided to carry my poles as they kept me upright on a number of occasions.  The descent eventually bottomed out at control 3 in Evionnaz, where again there were no savoury snacks, only sweet.  I was really starting to crave salt at this point and stupidly was not carrying anything savoury in my bag.  I had decided not to carry too many snacks on this race after my last race, where the food was excellent and I had got to the finish carrying almost all the food I had started with!  I quickly texted Andy to make sure he brought emergency supplies with him to the half-way point and popped a couple of ibuprofen to try and stop my foot from hurting, which was now starting to nag.

After Evionnaz there was a horrible long, flat section, mainly on tarmac.  Less than 20km in and already my feet were not liking the amount of tarmac I was having to cover in my trail shoes.  My legs don't like flat/road-running much and I had to stop for a stretch to ease my tightening muscles.  My stomach was also unhappy with the amount of sugary fuel I was putting into it and was uncomfortably bloated, yet at the same time I felt like I was starting to flag, which is never a good combination with many of hours of running still to go.  We headed upwards on a winding forest path, which finally spat us out onto the road into picturesque Salvan.  At 4hrs it felt like things were changing for the better.  We basked in the sun for the first time, meaning I could remove my gloves, and they had some delicious local cheese and bread at the control, which satisfied my need for something savoury.  My ipod also started playing Ben Howard's "Keep your head up", which made me think of my dear old dad and despite choking up, it really spurred me on.
The beautiful alpine scenery continued, through woodland, via the pretty villages of Marecottes and Tretien and along another stretch of road to the half-way control at Finhaut.  Here I was overjoyed to be met by Andy & Leila with an emergency supply of TUC biscuits and cashew nuts.  The food at the controls had improved, but I still guzzled both and stuffed some biscuits into my bag, swapping them for a couple of other things that I wasn't going to need.  Knowing I was half-way was very motivational and that plus the sunshine and seeing my loved ones really lifted my spirits and helped me to carry on.  I could have done with my emergency back-up bag however, which Andy left at home.  Mental note - remember to buy small tub of Vaseline for next race!

The steep descent out of Finhaut was not much fun, with lots of mud and slippery leaves on the rocks.  This took us down to the bottom of a deep gorge, where we mud-slid across a couple of bridges before ascending equally as steeply.  The path exited the forest onto the busy pavement-less road at la Tête Noire, on the route between France & Switzerland that I know well, so I made sure I got off the road as fast as I could.  The next section followed a pleasant forest path, winding round the side of a mountain for several km.  The control at La Crêtaz was in a beautiful setting with stunning scenery and views back down to the valley below.  It was manned by some friendly people and I stopped for a chat, knowing I was bang-on my target time and not too pressured to get moving.  The one cut-off I had to make was at the 9hr mark, where you could be stopped from doing the extra circuit which extended the route to 2 points rather than 1.  At 7hr15 I knew I had enough time to make it, bar any disasters.  I was also enjoying the fact that I could now predict my finish time to be approx. 11hrs and counting down how few hours I had left rather than being overwhelmed by the previous enormity of the task made the hours go more quickly.

The next descent was pretty steady until Gueuroz, where it suddenly steepened.  I had been following a guy for some time, who was clearly getting annoyed at having a girl on his tail, but he suddenly disappeared and I never saw him again.  It was steep and tricky going at the time and I am more inclined to think he went the wrong way rather than sped off.  The route markers were generally good, but every now and then they were not quite frequent enough and it was easy to think you had gone the wrong way.  At the control in Vernayaz, the food got worse again, with only apples, oranges and chocolate on offer, although the quality of the chocolate was improving!  There was a short 2km to the next, all-important control in Dorenaz, but as it was all on flat tarmac it really dragged on.  I made the cut-off with over 30mins to spare, but I'd overtaken a few people on that last stretch and didn't want to let them get past me so cracked straight on.  I knew I was slow, but I was determined not to be last.

The next few km of this optional part of the route headed straight up a steep hill and straight back down again.  I struggled with the uphill as I was really running out of energy but couldn't face any more energy drink.  I necked my only gel of the day in the hope that it would give me a boost and made it up the hill in one piece, somewhat faster than I expected given the amount of stops I made.  At the top they stapled a piece of ribbon to your race number as proof that you had done the extra 'boucle'.  I didn't hang around because there were no interesting snacks on offer and the volunteers were smoking like chimneys in their little hut, not what you want to breathe in after 9+hrs of running!  Plus the old guy behind me had caught up again and I needed to get away.  The descent was steep, with a few more sections of tarmac, but I made it to the final control in just under 10hrs.  Here I had done my maths wrong and thought there was only 7kms to go when in fact I was informed it was 10.5kms to the finish.  Definitely not music to my ears.

The final 10km went on forever.  It was flat, mainly on tarmac and my body just didn't have anything left to give.  I treated myself to short walks every now and then but was annoyed because it would push me over 11hrs.  Finally I could see the abbey at St Maurice in the distance and I knew I was going to make it.  I crossed the finish line in 11hrs05 with Alan waiting to greet me and promptly stuffed my face with the complementary raclette on offer.  I could not believe I had done it - 71kms and not a single blister, woo hoo!  Alan didn't do the extra section due to problems with his knees, not wanting to jeopardise his trip to Mt Kilimanjaro next weekend , but had still completed 68km in an excellent time of 8.5 hours.

It was a bit of a strange race.  If you drop out along the way you are still seen to have finished the previous stage, you could stop and start at numerous points along the way, hike it as a family rather than running and technically take as long as you want if you don't want to do it in just one day.  The biblical route was marked with scenes from the bible.  There were certainly a few people I met along the way that looked like they had never run before and yet were convinced they could go the whole 71km - maybe purely down to the strength of their beliefs?!  Fair play to them.

Bar the usual aches and pains following a hilly run, mainly sore quads from the descents, all was well afterwards (update day 2 - not sure I will make it down stairs/out of the house today!).  My left foot was pretty sore, but not as bad as expected.  I didn't enjoy the amount of tarmac-pounding involved and feel like I ran a road marathon in trail shoes, but apart from that it was a lovely route, particularly up in the hills and villages.  I am so chuffed that I managed to go the full distance, that I kept going when I was feeling rough and that my time was not disgraceful.  I think my dad would have been very proud.  However, I have to admit that I really missed the social aspect that I get from running these days.  My last few races have been run with friends and running alone felt, well, lonely.  It confirmed that the CCC is within my reach next year, but I am so glad not to be doing it alone.  I am sure you agree Nikki Barnard!

For now I am going to take it easy, have a few weeks off running and get my sore foot seen to.  It's been a busy summer and I need to get my body strong enough to tackle next year.  That means cross-training for the next few months, to stop talking about strength and core training and actually make it a habit and equally important, to have a rest.  Plus I turn 40 in a few weeks time, so the perfect excuse to hit the cake and wine for a bit.  Hoorah to that!