UTMB 2021 Preview

I’m currently in Chamonix preparing for the most competitive ultra trail race in the world… the UTMB. If my ageing brain has got it right, this will be my 8th time to give this race a go. The record so far is 3 finishes, 3 DNFs, followed by a return to finishing, in that unusual sequence.

The Chamonix valley, taken from the Aguile Du Midi
The Chamonix valley, taken from the Aguile Du Midi

The UTMB is now a massive festival of trail running organised around the original 170km race. Helen, my wife, took part in, and successfully completed the OCC 58km race yesterday. Multiple friends of min were caught up in the TDS, the gnarly 140km race, where unfortunately an experienced Czech runner fell to his death. This was the first fatality in the history of the UTMB races.

The UTMB itself is looking like it will be another phenomenal race this year, with the deepest elite field assembled this year. In the men’s race the list of elite runners spans multiple pages. At the top of the pile is the very interesting showdown between Jim Walmsley, who is probably the fastest runner in the race, having won the western states this year, and come with a sliver of breaking the 100lm world record, versus Francois D’Haene who is probably the best mountain ultrarunner in the race, having won Hardrock this year. There are many other runners with the potential to win as well, including a few past winners.

If anything the female race is even more interesting. Again the duel between the top two ranked runners is a fantastic prospect. Courtney Dauwater is one of the best known and most popular ultra runners on the planet. She is a phenomenally talented runner across multiple sub-genres of ultrarunning, and is the defending champion. Beth Pascal is running at her best ever at the moment. She had a dominant victory in the western states to truly announce herself onto the world stage. But her breaking of the Bob Graham round record had already shown just how good a runner she has become. I was lucky enough to witness one of Beth’s early career victories back in my first Spine race, where she literally stormed to the win by miles. Beth is currently taking a career break from being a practising doctor to concentrate on trail running. Again, this has the potential to be a great duel. My heart is backing Beth here, and so is my head!

I won’t be anywhere near threatening the head of the race. My first target is to add to my finish list rather than DNF list. My PB here is 24:44, but that was quite a few years ago and now that I’m in the over 50s category (V2 in UTMB terms) I probably lack my former speed to do that sort of time. I did manage around 27 hours two years ago, so I’m hoping to replicate something in that ballpark. Of course, weather and ground conditions will also influence timings.

I’ll be targeting to do as well as I can in my V2 category. According to the ITRA rankings I’m ranked number 5 in this race, which gives me a good shot at getting near the V2 podium. Last year’s winner (by miles) is back, and he is only ranked number 2. The number one ranked runner is a very impressive multiple winner of the fabulous Tour De Geant race. So no lack of depth of talent in this category either.

There is also good depth to the Irish contingent in the UTMB. This will be the first go at the UTMB for some great upcoming Irish runners, including my fellow Columbia athletes Gavin Byrne and Brian Buckley (who is also a fellow Corkonian). They’re both superb runners and should be in front of me if they have good days. Kerryman Joe O’leary has been putting in some interesting mountain running FKTs in the last year. Fellow Corkonian Brian Hutchinson has been on an impressive improvement curve and could do very well indeed this year if he has a good day out. I’ll be aiming to focus on my own race (and V2 race), and let the internal Irish race fall however it does.

We’re not wearing trackers, but there is excellent race coverage on Livetrail at https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/utmb. My race number is 253.

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The Summer Spine 2021 – Preview

Finally, some racing to do! It goes without saying that its been an unpredictable year for pretty much the entire world. I only managed to fit in 2 big races in 2020 before the covid restrictions kicked in (The Spine Race, and my first attempt at the backyard format, with 2nd places finishes in both, with both being blitzed by “named” storms). In the short gap between covid restrictions I managed another 2 races (Kerry Way Ultra, a DNF, and my2nd backyard, with another 2nd place finish).

For a while it was looking like a few races would happen early in 2021, starting with the Spine Race, but another cycle of restrictions kicked in, so pretty much every race in Europe was cancelled from there on. My next scheduled non-cancelled race remaining was UTMB in late August, still quite a while into the future. a month or two ago, with restrictions starting to ease again, my mind started to wander about if there were going to be any races before then. I was thinking about the summer version of the Spine Race, and that how it normally clashes with other things, but that wasn’t the case this year. So I thought about emailing the organisers to see if there was any chance that I could get an entry. Literally the next day a group email arrived in from the organisers saying that there were still places available on the Summer Spine Race, but that it was the last chance to enter. That was serendipity, so I siigned up!

The Summer Spine basically is exactly the same as the classic version, except that it’s the better weather maximum daylight version. In other words its completely different! Really its the arduousness of the British mountain environment that makes the Spine such a challenge. I’m hoping that this summer version will allow me to enjoy the sights of the Peninne Way, and be generally a more classically fun experience. Type 1 rather than Type 2 fun.

The Route is the usual Spine Route along the Pennine Way, covering over 400km of hilly terraine. Hopefully navigation will be easier with better weather and more daylight. It should run faster, being dryer than the mid winter combination of mud, snow, floods, and whatever else the weather throws at us. But I have no idea how much faster it will run. That’s all a big unkown to me.

There are 3 sperate races taking place : The Sprint goes to CP1, about 40 miles, The Challenger goes to CP2, about 100 miles. Of course I’m in the 3rd, the full Summer Spine. Each race in turn is split into starting waves. This is to reduce the size of the groups on the start line. It should also spread the field out earlier, as the intention is to have the faster runners in the earlier waves. The full Spine is split into the 3 waves. I’m in the first wave which sets off at 4pm on Saturday 19th June. The Challengers and sprinters will have set off before the full race. Waves are 2 hours apart. Social distancing is normally very very easy to achieve on the Spine Race once the race begins!

As ever it’s impossible to make reliable predictions for a race like the spine, as there are so many moving parts, so many things that can, and often do, go wrong. There are lots and lots of entrants who I don’t know, and very few that I do. There are at least two other Irish in my wave, Sean Mason and Fergus Melligan. Best of luck to both of them. Fergus has been getting faster at ultras over the years. I wouldn’t be surprised to be racing directly against him out on the course.

As usual I’ll be aiming to try to win, but have fun whatever happens. I’d also like to do my fastest Spine time, since on paper the course should be running much faster than I normally experience.

We’ll all be wearing trackers as usual, and the event can be tracked here : https://live.opentracking.co.uk/spine21sum/. If Richard is watching he might post a few comments to my athlete facebook page as well. There’ll be plenty of media coverage too, with links from the tracking page to the race facebook and instagram pages.

Finally…. back to racing in the hills. Let the games begin!

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The Kerry Way Ultra – Preview

It’s been a long long time without a race. Since March one by one pretty much every race on my Calendar, big and small, has been cancelled. The initial few months of this coincided with a major lock down in Ireland. Luckily for me even though my movements were restricted by distance I still always had at least one useful hill within bounds. I also kept up my “commuting” routine of cycling in and out to work by shifting to cycling on my turbo trainer for an hour in the morning and evening.

The net result of that was I reckon I got myself into the best fitness I have had in years by early summer. I was waiting patiently for the opportunity to use this “in anger” in a race. UTMB for a long time was looking like the mostly likely next big race, which was perfect. Unfortunately they then added themselves to the “postponed until next year” pile.

However, I had a plan B for that cancellation. I had always wanted to give the Kerry Way Ultra a bash. However its timing clashed with both the UTMB and TDG, so as a result of my trips to those big alpine races I was never able to schedule it into my calendar. So within an hour or two of getting the news the the UTMB wouldn’t be happening this year I had entered into the Kerry Way Ultra (KWU).

There are many things I like about this race. It is a lovely volunteer run race, organised on a non-profit basis. It looks like a fantastic route. Better again, it is the longest trail race in Ireland. And I (nearly) always like the longest option for racing. I’ve always felt it is a big absence in my record of races that I haven’t competed in Ireland’s longest trail race. So the absence of the UTMB was now seamlessly converted into an opportunity.

Then (in my own little bubble) disaster struck. I injured myself. I’m not 100% sure how I did it (believe it or not, I reckon jumping out of bed when I cramped settling down to sleep one night was the most likely cause), but I picked up an injury in my right ankle on the medial (inner) side. This brought my running to a crashing halt.

Luckily I was still able to cycle, so my cycle training was ramped up to a much higher degree for quite a while. The injury was taking longer to heal than I anticipated, so I consulted Dr Google, and self diagnosed my initial suspicion that I had sprained my ankle (damaged ligaments). Unfortunately the medial side is both a rarer injury, and takes longer to heal.

In fact it was only two weeks ago that I was able to re-start running, after nearly two months of absence. My aerobic fitness was still good with all the cycling I was doing, and my strength on the bike was probably better than it had ever been. But my god, it was much harder restarting running than I had anticipated. It took a few days to knock out the initial stiffness to the point where even slow running was less of an effort. I had lost running speed almost entirely. But at least I was actually running. On the upside the cycling meant that my strength was good. And it felt like I was running quite fluidly, if somewhat slowly.

So as a result I find myself heading into a race I have wanted to do for a long long time with big questions around whether I can even complete it, never mind how competitive I can be. Being such a long race I’m hoping that my lack of speed will only be relatively minor factor. But it will most likely ensure that I’ll be a tortoise rather than a hare for this one! All I can do is give it my best shot, and see what happens.

A view across the Lakes of Killarney, from part of the Kerry Way route

The race itself starts and finishes in Killarney, one of Ireland’s most popular tourist hot spots (for good reasons). It follows an big anti-clockwise loop around the Kerry Way walking trail, basically doing a lap of the Iveragh Peninsula, the biggest in Kerry. Most of it seems to be off-road trail, and a lot of the ground I’m familiar with is pretty gnarly, considering its a way-marked trail.

The Kerry Way Ultra route

The route is about 200km or so, with plenty of ups and downs along the way (although nothing too massive compared with the UTMB). A bit of a roller coaster. I have been on about 30 or percent of it previously at various times (mostly in running or adventure races), but the are huge sections that I’m completely unfamiliar with.

The Kerry Way Ultra race profile

This year has by far the biggest field entered for the race (along with its shorter sibling races). As a result there are a lot of competitive looking runners in the field. Gavin Byrne (my fellow Columbia athlete) looks like the form runner to me, fresh from his excellent run for his Denis Rankin Round in the Mourne mountains. At the best of times we would have had a good race, but I reckon I won’t be able to match him for this one. There is a long list of other competitive runners who are likely to make for some lively racing action.

Due to the on-going Covid restrictions this years event will have a staggered start. I’ll be heading out with the “speedsters” in the last wave at 7:10am on Friday morning. The first wave will have started at 5:00am, with nearly 200 runners heading off over 11 waves over 2 hours or so. So tracking how the competition is going is likely to be tricky. Most people in the last wave are likely to be competive, and no doubt there will be one or two more.

All the female competitors set off in the 6:30 wave. I won’t be at all surprised if Aoife Mundow wins again. She got this year off to a flying start by breaking the Irish 24 hour running record. She also set a new Denis Rankin Round record recently, so it looks like she is in excellent form.

We will all have trackers and the race can be tracked at http://live.primaltracking.com/kerrywayultra2020/. It looks like I’m number 84. Richard Nunan will be along again as my star support man, so hopefully he will get the chance to keep things updated on my Facebook athlete page. Having Richard as support is a huge plus to getting around and racing to my best ability, so massive thanks are owed in advance there.

This is one race where I will need luck more than ever. Expectations are set suitably low. But it’s good to at least get the opportunity to get out and race again, and I’m very much looking forward to finally getting to race Ireland’s longest trail race.

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Last One Standing Castleward 2020 – Preview

In an online forum discussing which was Ireland’s toughest race my nomination was unusual, since it is a race I have not yet participated in. It was the Last Man Standing (as it was called then). The thing that makes this race so difficult is that nobody has any idea how long someone will have to run to win it.

The format was created by the great Lazarus Lake himself (creator of the Barkley marathons, amongst others).  Laz’s original race is called Big’s BackYard Ultra (Big being one of Laz’s dogs, and the race location being where the name comes from). Runner’s have to start a lap of about 4.2 miles. They have one hour to complete the lap. They then start the next lap exactly one hour later. Anyone who fails to complete the lap within an hour, or start the next lap exactly on time is eliminated. The winner is the last runner to complete a lap on their own. Everyone else is a DNF (loser). There can be no joint winners, only losers.

In BBYU an off-road lap is used during daylight hours, and a road lap is used at night. It’s questionable whether this makes things harder or easier. Everything about this race is questionable! Tactics are so very interesting. Whether to run faster laps to get a longer inter-lap rest, or slower laps to minimise tiredness. How to get sleep, and when, and even if it can be done. How and when to eat, drink etc. And of course the huge potential for mind games with your fellow runners if you’re racing to win. It’s a really fascinating format.

The last few years have seen some stellar fields taking part in BBYU, with some fascinating races and results emerging. From Yohan Steene’s amazing win (and record distance for the format) 2 years ago, managing to hold off Courtney Dauwalter despite huge logistical issues even getting to the race on time (his original flight turned back halfway across the Atlantic). Last year, in a result for the ages, Maggie Guterl became the first female to win the race. (I had the pleasure of Maggie’s company for more than a lap of the Barkley marathons 2 years ago).

Atlas running up in Northern Ireland have been running their own version of this race for the last 4 years. The race is held in Castleward and is called Last One Standing (Definitely not last Man standing in the wake of Maggie’s result. The winner of LOS gets a “golden ticket” to enter BBYU in Tennessee. It’s one of the earliest of the BBYU franchises which are currently exploding in popularity around the world.

Last one standing

I’ve decided to give this a go this weekend. It’s a format that no amount of theorising will help to really understand what it takes to compete, so this is my “learn the format” project. Go in at the deep end and truly understand what is required. And it’s looking like it will be an interesting race indeed.

The weather forecast has a “named” storm, storm Denis, rolling pretty much as the race is due to start. That adds a big piece of additional complexity to add to the parameters that need to be juggled about.

The entry list is over 100 deep, so there are lot of people who will need to be outrun for anyone who is aiming to win the race. There are plenty of interesting talented runners amongst them. We have at least one other veteran of the Barkley marathons in Billy Reed. We also have a past winner of this race, and a veteran of BBYU in Peter Cromie. He is also an old adventure racing rival, and made of hardy stuff!

But the standout run looks like Dan Lawson. Dan is an awesome runner. The fact that he was a European 24 hour running champion is enough to make him stand out as one to watch. But he is also hugely talented beyond 24 hours. He has won the de-facto 6 day running world championship, the EMU 6 day race in Hungary. 

There are many other veterans of 24 hour racing, Last One Standing racing, and other endurances events (including one or two refugees from the Spine race) entered. Too many to list out. And this format often produces runners “out of left field” who do exceptionally well.

So it really is impossible to tell how long it will take to be Last One Standing here. I’ll be giving my best shot. I feel like I’m in good shape, but you can never tell with these things, especially having run the Spine race so recently.

I’ll have Richard Nunan supporting me for this race (as he tapers for his upcoming marathon), which is fantastic. Hopefully he’ll be posting updates when he gets the chance on my Athlete Facebook page (Eoin Keith – Athlete). The race should also be posting updates on their pages (Atlas running, and Last One Standing. The race starts on Saturday 15th at midday.

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The Spine Race 2020

The “Spine Bubble” begins early. Once I arrived in Edale I wheeled my entire luggage collection straight to the Peak Centre for gear check. Getting to the hall I was soon in the presence of old friends from the “Spine Family”, chatting and joking straight away. I had been assigned the number 180, which would be handy for a darts tournament. Unfortunately for me numbers ending in 0 were automatically given a full kit check. I was giggling at this since I had only not had a full kit check once in all my Spine races. All went smoothly.

Onwards to the race briefing in the village hall. Here I met up with several old friends and acquaintances who I hadn’t seen in a while. I think at this stage I could give the briefing myself, having heard it so many times! I re-introduced myself to John Kelly and we had a nice little chat. I also met a few of the team from the Film crew who were going to be filming the race to make a documentary for Japanese TV. Hopefully I’d be seeing more of them.

A quick van journey took me up to the Hostel in Edale, which was full of racers. I met and chatted to a few more old friends here, along with making a few new ones. Self catered dinner turned out to be a great social affair, especially meeting the only other Irish full Spine race competitor Fiona Lynch. Most importantly I had a room to myself, thanks to my friend Thure, who ended up skipping the race himself. So it was relatively straightforward to get in a good night’s pre-race sleep.

Not having breakfast, and with almost no pre-race tasks to be completed I was able to sleep in to a relatively late 6:40am.I had to eject one or two bottles of fruit juice from my drop bag to get it to a reasonable weight for the logistics team. With that taken care of it was back in a van trip back to the village hall in preparation for the start. Needless to say I met a few more familiar faces here, including Eugeni, bouncing around with enthusiasm. Pavel sought me out to say hello as well. He was going to be roving the course filming for the Japanese crew.


The Spine Race Route

The weather was looking 50-50 in terms of whether to start with full rain gear or not. I elected to put on my rain leggings in the end. If nothing else it was the easiest way to distribute the weight. The majority of competitors seemed to be erring in the same direction.

So with a few minutes to go we were all encouraged out of the civilisation of the bright warm village hall and over to the muddy field where the start line banner was positioned. With a surprisingly large number of spectators around we were given a countdown, and then slid off through the sloppy mud on our way.


And they’re off!

My tactics for this race were very simple. I intended to run my own pace irrespective of what else happens (easier said than done in a close racing environment). I knew John Kelly was likely to go off pretty quickly, and that Eugeni would probably be able to match him for speed. So it was a bit of a surprise when I was still at the front of the field as we ran through Edale on our way to the turn off onto the Pennine way itself.

John duly took the lead as we hit the off-road track. Soon a few other runners passed me to stick in closely behind him. It hadn’t taken long for the leggings choice to be validated, as we were now running into wind driven rain. The multiple gate crossings ensured that the large group stayed together through this early section.

The first real split in the lead group developed as we ran along the double track towards the start of the first big climb, Jacob’s Ladder. John Kelly eased away with 3 other runners for company. I was happy to stick to my plan and stay within my comfort zone and let them go. There was a loose group of about 4 or 5 of us following on.

Tuning into myself heading up Jacobs ladder I was happy that I was able to climb at a reasonable speed whilst keeping effort levels nice and steady. John’s group grew their gap bigger and bigger to the point where they headed “out of sight, out of mind”. I was guessing that some would pay for going out too aggressively (although not John).

Heading across Kinder Scout plateau there was some more back and forths in my little grupetto, with one or two breaking away into the distance. The waterfall at Kinder Downfall was doing its “upfall” trick, with a substantial amount of water being blown back up the hill by the cross winds. The weather was properly inclement by now, and full rain gear was a necessity. The ground was well sodden, and I was guessing the rivers would all be relatively swollen.

The stone slabs taking us across towards Snake pass were nicely runnable this year, with no ice. They were however well flooded at regular intervals, making for splashy running. Wouter had popped in front of me for this section and was setting a fast steady pace. I was content to run a little behind at a similar pace.

In the early days of the race there is a relatively frequency of supporters out, and Snake Pass was the first point where we were cheered through. I wasn’t exactly sure of my position, but I reckoned it was somewhere around 6 / 7 at that point.

We formed into a relatively close group of 4 heading through the Devil’s dike, with solid ground under foot. I was setting the pace for the grupetto through here. The ground then turns much more difficult, with sodden mucky conditions through a small river valley climb. The grupetto worked together nicely to navigate our way through this section, finding the best lines we could through the sloppy conditions.

The speed picked up again as we topped out over Bleaklow and headed back downhill. As expected we soon started coming across runners heading in the opposite direction from a fell race taking place concurrently in the same general area. I’d spend much of the next hour greeting oncoming runners, trying to keep a lookout for runners I knew who were expecting to take part (including “Spine Royalty” Jasmin Paris and Carol Morgan).

Crossing the river at Torside Clough my suspicions about rivers in spate were confirmed. I took an extra few seconds to ensure to cross safely here. We were all looking out for each other here as best we could. The grupetto broke apart heading down Clough edge towards Torside Reservoir, and I found myself running solo.

I went through the mini-aid station which the mountain rescue team had set up here without stopping, and headed out across the damn having closed in on a runner ahead. By now I had run through most of the fell race field coming in the opposite direction. Despite two seperate races competing on the same trail in opposite directions it had all been lovely friendly encounters, with everyone trying to ensure not to block anyone coming the opposite way.

I kept up my running pace through the moderate uphill sections past the reservoir, and turning North on the long undulating climb towards Black Hill. I could see Huw Davies and a few others in front of me in the distance. From behind Wouter was closing up rapidly on the climbs, but I was dropping him away on the descents. I was still taking it nice and steadily on the climbs, being careful to keep my effort relatively low.

The river crossings before the final climb to Black Hill can be “interesting” in wet weather. Sure enough they proved to be so. I just went for it and waded through one of the crossings beyond knee deep, knowing that my waterproof gatored shoes weren’t going to be able to save me from that one! But the wetsuit effect soon kicked in on the slabbed climb up to Black hill, with any water in my socks warming up to body temperature. This meant I was still perfectly comfortable.

I was very happy with my shoe’s performance. They were a pair of Columbia Trans Alps with a full Outdry Extreme Waterproof Gators built in. The grip of the Trans-Alps was perfect for the mix of mucky bog and rock-slab running. It goes without saying that a gator to keep grit out of my feet in these mucky conditions was invaluable.

Going up Black Hill I could see at least 3 runners ahead. I reckoned I was slowly pulling them in, which was encouraging me to keep my speed steady. Similarly Wouter’s presence not too far behind was keeping me on my toes. The lack of ice enabled me to run off Black hill at a much more comfortable pace than last year, all the while slowly closing on the runners ahead.

Black Hill peak

Running past Black Hill Peak

I could see the runners ahead doing a bit of a faff on the road at Wessenden head, where a safety team had a landrover positioned. I greeted the safety team and moved on through without stopping.

Leaving the road and heading down the double track towards Wessenden Moor there was more of a headwind, as we were now heading more westerly. Thankfully the rain had eased off a bit by now, so apart from slowing the speed a bit it wasn’t difficult to deal with. This was a long descent, with a few twists along the way. I reckoned I could still occasionally catch sight of about 3 runners ahead.

The trail does an effective switchback at the bottom of the descent where it drops into a small river canyon and climbs out the opposite side. Here I was able to look ahead and see more clearly the bunch of runners ahead (1 followed by a pair). I was definitely getting closer to the pair.

I still kept to my easy but steady pace on the steep climb out, and maintained a slow steady run through the mucky singletrack leading out from there to Black Moss Reservoir. Approaching the next road crossing at Standedge I finally closed the pair ahead right down, overtaking the first of them before the road crossing. There was another impromptu aid station at the road crossing, where the second runner stopped for a drink, whilst I ran straight past. It was nice to already be ticking off the over-fast starters.

It was notable to myself how little I had been drinking, but also how I wasn’t at all thirsty. I had still being peeing quite a bit, so all was good. I reckoned I was fat-burning nicely, and as a result wasn’t needing to gulp down a ton of water. I also probably had my gear perfectly regulating my temperature, with my Outdry Extreme shell jacket and pants keeping the effect of the wind and rain totally excluded, with only base layers required underneath.

I was thinking that I might be running around 3rd or 4th at this stage, having overtaken the pair. I could see one more runner in front, and knew that John and Eugeni were further in front somewhere. Indeed I caught a glimpse of a pair of runners ahead about a kilometer in the distance as we traversed across the open moorland trails on Close Moss.

Another road crossing followed, and I could see I was closing right in on the next runner ahead. Before reaching the peak of the subsequent climb out from the road I had managed to catch and overtake him (It was Simon Roberts). So another fast starter accounted for. I still wasn’t fully sure of my position, but reckoned it was 3rd.

I kept up the steady cruising down to the crossing of the M64, and the long climb out from there up along Blackstone Edge. Somewhere along the way I was told by a spectator on route that I was in 5th position. Damn… I knew it was all too good to be true. That meant I must have been just on the edge of dropping out of the top 10 not too long back. I wasn’t sure who two of the runners in front were.

Reaching the road crossing at the White House pub I did stop to get a drink of water at the safety monitoring point here, along with a small snack (I think I had half a banana). I was off again with 30 seconds or so, as I knew the overtaken runners weren’t too far behind. The next section through a collection of reservoirs is a long pretty flat double track road. Last year we had a buffeting headwind here, so things were much improved this year, with the strong wind more of a tailwind. I just “put my head down” and jogged along steadily on this flat section.

The trail then gets much more interesting as it turn past the reservoir with a nice slabby crossing turning into a steady downhill single trail towards Stoodley pike. Stoodly appears from miles away and appears closer than it is from a long way off. I made good progress drifting down the trail, and then climbing up in a slow steady run to Stoodley pike itself.


Stoodley Pike in somewhat better weather.. hard to miss on any occasion!

Last year I had put on my head torch shortly after passing the Pike, but I reckoned I was 5 or 10 minutes longer before needing to do so this year. Hopefully this meant I was progressing faster, despite feeling like I was putting in an easier effort. I finally put my head torch on in the forest before crossing the Rochdale Canal.

CP1 in Hebden Bridge was getting close now. This was an in-and-out diversion away from the Pennine Way itself. As it was in-and-out it was an opportunity to meet people coming in the opposite direction, both in front and behind. And so it turned out… I met John first, heading back out and away, well in front. Eugeni was next not too long afterwards. I met one more runner, but wasn’t sure who he was before finally reaching the aid station.

Jayson Cavil was in the aid station when I arrived, and we greeted each other and had a chat. I didn’t have too much to do here. I just wanted to swap maps and ensure I had enough head torch power for the night. I had two coffees, which I had planned, but also accepted the offer of a baked potato with cheese, provided it came reasonably rapidly, which it did! I packed back up and was out fairly rapidly, leaving ahead of Jayson. Wouter arrived not long before I headed out, and we also exchanged greetings.

I met a few other runners coming into the aid station as I headed up the technical muddy track out of there. But once I was on the road heading back to the Pennine way, it was all clear, and I was now running solo again. And I was enjoying the isolation, hoping that it would last a while.

I had a nice solo run for the next hour or so. As I dropped into the valley where the Pennine Way runs along the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs I could see a head torch in the distance climbing out of the valley. Whoever that was wasn’t too far into the distance, but still at least 20 minutes ahead of me. I wasn’t looking around too much to see if anyone was behind. But I knew Jayson had good speed last year, so chances were he’d be following online somewhere behind.

After reaching the climb out myself I kept up a steady speed, enjoying the solo running. I no longer had the sightlines to see far enough ahead to see the head torch of the runner ahead. Spectators had driven out to Ponden Reservoir, and I accepted an offer of a mini bounty bar there, for a nice little psychological lift.

The climb up Oakworth Moor a few kilometers later is an edge case between running and walking, particularly as a wet boggy singletrack trail following a short road section. I kept my concentration to ensure that I ran up, whilst at the same time keeping the effort levels really low. It seems to take forever to get up this smaeish climb. It eventually turns slightly right, fattening out into even boggier ground, with the occasional slabs in place to provide relatively rapid passage through the worst bog.

As I was running along a longer flatter undulating stone slab section I was woken from my running trance by the sound of Jayson popping up behind me. I had only met Jayson when he had to pull out at CP2 last year with an injury, but found him to be a nice guy. So we got chatting again. I offered to let him by if he wanted to crack on, but he was happy with the pace.

We kept up a good pace together, as the trail headed on its moderate descent back off the hill. I was remembering all the twists and turns, and which section were technical and boggy. The undulating section that followed before returning to doubletrack road showed that Jayson was climbing more strongly than me, as he opened up gaps on the climbs.

There was a diversion marked on the ground to get us past an off road section of the Pennine Way approaching Cowling. I reckoned the trail itself must have been getting too muddy, especially with the challengers having passed through beforehand. Leaving Cowling I could still catch glimpses of Jayson’s torch, as he had opened a gap of a few hundred meters ahead.

After the diversion at Cowling I was somewhat surprised that there were no subsequent diversion on the muddy section after that before Lothersdale. Leading along towards Lothersdale there were some funny posters stuck up on posts where possible, encouraging us Spiners along.

At Lothersdale the local triathlon club had set up an unofficial aid station. This was a real oasis. Jayson was sitting having a cuppa and a snack. I elected to stay standing, and have a coffee. I got a real treat when they hauled out a gluten free mince pie for me, which went down a bomb! I kept my stay relatively short and left before Jayson, saying I’d see him in a few minutes (I knew there was a long climb to follow, and that he would close me down again).

Sure enough Jayson did catch up with me about halfway up the climb. He had been having a little issue with his feet, so he was happy to take the pressure off them a bit and climb at my pace over the next hill. We really got into having a good conversation from here, whilst working together naturally keeping a good pace. This included talking about who was in front. Jayson reckoned there were two German runners in front of us, as well as John and Eugeni.

Heading downhill towards Thornton I caught sight of a runner ahead. We seemed to get closer to him as we left the road for the off-road trail. However as we headed down the descent we didn’t see too much more of him.

Coming out the other side of Thornton heading towards the Leeds and Liverpool canal we saw him again, and it looked like we were getting a lot closer. After we hit the canal we didn’t see him again though, even though we expected to catch soon. We knew there was a diversion away from the Pennine way coming up, but the start of it wasn’t marked, so wen ended up going a little too far on the original route, before correcting ourselves and coming back onto the diversion. The diversion was a long arc around the original route, but was probably a little quicker due to being road rather than mucky off-road of the original route.

My headtorch flashed its distress at running out of batteries, so I let Jayson run on whilst I stopped to swap torches. I caught back up with him just outside Gargrave, and we were back running together from there. We made good progress on the roads from there, and then headed off road back onto the mucky tracks towards Eshton Moor.

The navigation here is slightly tricky, as there are long open sections between walls (And it helps to hit the wall crossings accurately). Crossing the top of an open hill here we caught side of a runner ahead. He was running forward, then looking back at us, then running forward again in a repeating pattern. We were finally catching the German runner.

It was a lot quicker than I expected for us to catch him, as he came to a halt after a minute or two and stopped to wait for us. To my initial surprise, it turned out to be Eugeni, and not the German runner. He was lost. This was less surprising. His GPS was not working properly, apparently. So Eugeni followed along behind us.

The diversion to Airton was a nice speedy gain compared to the flooded Pennine Way. Joining back onto the Pennine Way, the track was back to being a sticky muddy slow slog. Again I was being careful not to put in too much effort. Jayson was slowly pulling away along this section as a result, with Eugeni following belong about 50 meters behind.

This pattern continued as we headed up the small pull of a hill through Hanlith and out along the original Pennine Way route into Malham village itself. After leaving the road after Malham, and heading down into the base of Malham cove I could see that Jayson had been joined by someone, who I guessed was one of the camera crew. Looking up ahead above the cove I could see two head torches. I guessed one of those at least was one of the German runners ahead.

Jayson was still pulling away, particularly as he headed up the brutal stepped climb up past Malham Cove. The Camera man waited for me (and Eugeni now right behind me), and joined us as we headed up the steps. Again, I concentrated on keeping the effort steady and not overdoing things here, irrespective of the racing situation. Eugeni stuck in behind and followed on.

The ground above the cove is nasty rocky ankle breaking terrain, with deep crevices between potentially slippery rocks. I worked my way through this and managed to find a pretty good line down to the centre of the Malham Lings valley. Once the centre of the valley it’s a nice runnable grassy trail for a while. The trail does a switchback ahead, so it was a good opportunity to see how everyone was going. We were closing on the lead runner for sure. It looked like another runner was closing fast on him a bit behind (Jayson probably). We caught up on the one other head torch ahead, who it turned out was a walker who was not part of the race.

After that there were no further sightings of torches ahead, as we made our own way up the valley, crossing a road, and finally making the trek along past the large lake which is Malham Tarn, and into CP1.5  at Malham Tarn field centre. As expected Jayson was there, along with another runner.

I had a quick coffee, and soon got ready to leave again. Jayson was having an Expedition Foods dehydrated meal. It turned out the other run here was a challenger runner trying to decide whether to get going or not. The German runner just in front of us had popped his head in the door, but carried on without stopping. So the room now had 3rd, 4th, and 5th placed runner. Jayson offered the remains of his meal to Eugeni, which he was glad to accept. I made my way to the door and headed on out.

The sun had started to rise when I was here last year, but there was no sign of that now. I guessed Eugeni would now stick to Jayson like a limpet, and that Jayson would catch me soon enough to bring us all back together. I didn’t see any sign of following head torches in the early stages of heading away from CP1.5 Things were now getting complicated by the fact that we were passing through the tail end of the challenger field. As ever, there is lots of mutual encouragement and good wishes when we’re passing the challenger runners.

first night

Heading away from CP 1.5 Mahlam Tarn

Heading up the early slopes of Fountain’s Fell the cloud was low, so visibility became much reduced. There was now no chance of seeing other runners unless they were really close. Again I kept the climb nice and steady. I was happily surprised to reach the top without Jayson catching me from behind. The descent was nice and technical in the wet conditions. The grassy slopes were particularly slippery, and I had to use my poles to save myself on a few occasions.

I wondered if one of the runners I passed on the descent was the German runner (Andre Hook), but I wasn’t sure. (As it turned out Andre had gotten himself quite lost around the top of Fountains Fell for a while, so I had indeed passed him somewhere here). A good steady road run took me to the climb up the foothill of Pen-y-ghent. Unlike last year, I was able to take this initial climb at running pace.

I made sure to keep the effort level of the steep hands-and-knees climb up Pen-y-Ghent itself to a steady level, being careful not to push too hard. This was still all about pacing for the full distance. I caught a glimpse of a runner below climbing with effort. The climb went faster than I expected.

As I started the long descent off Pen-y-Ghent down towards Horton the first hints of daylight were appearing. Getting to the bottom of a overly-long set of rock slab steps I looked back to see a runner coming after me. That must be Andre! I was expecting Jayson and Eugeni to appear as a pair of lights. That ensure that I kept up a good pace for the rest of the descent. Indeed the pace was so good that I was actually opening up a gap between Andre and myself. I was noticing that I was considerably less fatigued than I had been on this section last year, despite being ahead of myself in terms of relative timings of the dawn.

There was a short out-and-back section into a safety checkpoint just before Horton. I grabbed a coffee, and managed to get back out before anyone came into the building. On the way back out Jayson passed me first heading in the opposite direction. I was surprised to see him without Eugeni. Andre followed within a hundred meters or so.

Leaving 1.75

Heading away from Horton

To my surprise I was able to make it all the way up the double track out of Horton without anyone catching me. As I made the left turn to head to Old Ing I could see that Andre was not too far behind putting in an effort to close me down. (Jayson was telling me afterwards that he had been passed by Andre twice. He must have made another nav error. And that he was looking pretty angry the second time!).

Andre had been running behind me for a minute or two by the time we reached Old Ing, and Jayson was within a few meters as well. As the trail turned to flatter fire-road Andre went flying past, sprinting to open a clear gap. He was racing hard for second place it would seem. Unfortunately for him it was way too early to be racing for anything at this point. I knew he was banking up trouble and he would pay for this overly aggressive racing this early in the race.

Jayson drew level, and we settled back into our chatting. We were in full agreement that Andre was over-racing at this early stage. We kept a steady mix of running and walking as we headed over to and then headed up the Cam High Road.

Even with this relaxed approach we found ourselves slowly closing in on Andre, who seemed to have eased right off in front of us. When we caught up with him further along he said to us that he realised he needed to pace himself for the full race. I reckoned he had realised this a little too late, and that he had probably already banked a little too much effort.

It was slow steady running all the way to Hawes, with the 3 of us never too far apart at any stage. Only coming into the village itself did the grupetto split a little, with Andre surging on, and Jayson easing back. Running up the main street in the village I ran into John Kelly running outbound. We greeted each other, high-fived, and wished each other well. He was looking tired, but moving very well.

Last year I was exhausted arriving into the CP2 aid station at Hawes, and needed to sleep to recover. This year I was an hour or two faster getting here, but felt a whole lot better. It was the middle of the day, and I definitely didn’t need to sleep. I reckoned I would try to push on all the way to CP3 before sleeping, something I’d only managed once before.

I ate a little real food, had a few coffees for the caffeine, and sorted out my CP tasks (mainly battery and map swapping). With focussed attention I ended up being first out the door of the group of 3. The others were clearly going to follow as well.

At early CP

Spinning thoughts at an early CP

Whilst I was in CP2 John had ended up doing an involuntary tour of Hawes, making two navigation errors in succession. As a result, unbeknownst to me I was exiting the the aid station a lot closer to him than I thought. I was quite slow to warm up back to any kind of speed. We were more than 24 hours into the race, and over 100 miles completed at this stage.

I was back to speed by the time the big climb up Great Shunner Fell began. The wind had really picked up by now. Thankfully it was for the most part a tail-wind. After a while I could see two people heading up the hill a few hundred meters ahead. I presumed they were walkers. I had been joined by one of the camera men from the documentary makers. He reckoned it was John being filmed by Pavel up ahead. I could see how that might be the case.

With the tail wind, and bodies ahead to concentrate on, I was able to keep a solid, but not over-fast climbing pace. After the initial steeper section on double track were marched up, I was able to switch to slow running for the single track climbing of the upper sections of the climb. I could see that I was slowly closing in on the runner(s) ahead.

Heading towards the peak the windspeeds were getting dangerously high. I was really getting pushed about a lot, and was being pushed off the path with some frequency. I had closed within about two hundred meters of the pair in front. Approaching the peak cairn itself I could see Pavel filming our approach. Even big Pavel was being pushed around by the wind.

Cresting the peak I was glad to start the descent, as we were now in a bit of wind shelter, so I was more controlled in my running. I needed to be, with a lot of slabby rocky sections where any mistakes could result in a painful bone-breaking fall. Looking ahead I couldn’t see any immediate sign of John heading down the hill. He must have belted off at high speed!

There was no way I was belting anywhere at high speed. I settled into a steady descent, mainly concentrating on staying safe. About 5 minutes into the descent John came zooming past at speed. I must have passed him on the peak without realising it. I was happy to let him go without chasing, and continue with my steady descent. I now realised I had managed to close in and catch John on the climb up Great Shunner Fell, and had been in the lead for about 5 minutes. That’s more than I would have thought possible before the race. Despite him visibly opening a gap in front I was quite happy with that!

I passed Pavel again at the bottom of the descent in Thwaite. John and myself were both without our camera crews again. John was now out of sight ahead. It was nice to have daylight for the next section around to Keld, which is a fun bit of trail running. Near Keld I got out a Millionaire’s Shortbread bar and started eating it. I felt something crunch and spat it out (there should not have been anything crunchy in that bar). I soon realised I had just spat out a tooth. Whoops. Well, it didn’t hurt, so there wasn’t much I could do but carry on.

Crossing the river Swale and heading uphill to the moorland before the Tan Hill Inn both the weather and the light were deteriorating. So I stopped, taking shelter from the walls of a farm building. I  rooted through my backpack and retrieved my headtorch and my light fleece midlayer. A few minutes I was back going again.

The weather was getting worse and worse crossing the moor towards the Tan Hill Inn. The wind was screaming, and i was raining on top. Luckily i was still a tailwind. Within a kilometer or two of the Tan Hill Inn things became really bad when the rain turned to hail. I could feel it battering the side of my hood. I’d make it to the Tan Hill Inn with my current set up, but I definitely needed to put extra layers on there, as I was right on the edge of comfortable. I was definitely glad I stopped to put my mid-layer on.

I could see someone coming out from the Tan Hill Inn towards me. It turned out to be Paul Nelson, who had given me a good race in the last Northern Traverse, coming out to say hello. That was very nice of him. The weather was so bad that even with Paul’s Commando voice I could only hear him half the time.

Reaching the Tan Hill Inn I got inside as quickly as possible. I had originally intended for this to be q quick “say hello” in and out visit. But the weather had changed this. John was still here, and was preparing himself in a nearby room.  He left about 10 minutes after I arrived. We had a quick conversation, agreeing that the weather was particularly vicious.

jacket on at THI

Outry Extreme Down Jack goes on in the Tan Hill Inn

Thanks to the safety staff here I drank a coffee or two, whilst re-jigging my clothing set-up. I put on my extra mid-layer legging (a first in the Spine), and add my Omni-dry down jacket as a second outer mid-layer. I also switched to my Showa waterproof gloves, as my thermal gloves had been soaked through. All that seemed to take about 20 minutes to half an hour. I wasn’t looking forward to heading back out into the storm again, but got myself together and headed out. Just as I was heading out Eugeni arrived in. I was surprised he was next to arrive. I would have expected Jayson next.

Exiting the THI

Layered up and heading out the door of the Tan Hill Inn

My next surprise is that it wasn’t raining or hailing when I got outside. The wind was still screaming though. I was possibly now over-dressed, but it was definitely better to err on the side of warmth. The net section through Sleightholm Moor is pretty horrible and boggy, with the barely there path more like a swimlane it is all so wet.

John was out of sight ahead again, and I didn’t think I could see anyone behind, so I was back to solo running again. The rest of this leg was mostly just a steady cruisey run in. I did occasionally catch sight of head torches behind. I reckoned they were about 20 minutes or so behind. I was surprised at how comfortably I was managing in terms of sleep deprivation. I was most definitely starting to get tired though, and knew that it wouldn’t be a problem getting to sleep.

When I arrived at CP3 in Middleton John had already disappeared off to get sleep. I got some delicious chicken curry, and a hot chocolate first, before heading off to get some sleep myself. I knew that sleep timings here would determine the order of the race into the next stage. As usual, I would stick to my own plan irrespective of what the others were going to do. Figuring out sleep time was like playing chess here for me. I was thinking multiple aid stations ahead. I was determined to avoid as much as possible running along in an overly sleep-deprived zombie state. So I was going to sleep at both CP4 and CP5. With this in mind I reckoned a 2 hour sleep would be enough to get me to CP4 in reasonable comfort.

I reckoned 2 hours would be on the long side, but it turned out that was the shortest sleep that anyone from the lead racing pack (which was now John, myself, Jayson and Eugeni) took at CP3. As a result I was first to wake up and get going again.

The next section heading towards Dufton was broadly heading west. This meant that for a change we were more likely to get a head wind rather than a tail wind. The first few kilometers of this section are a relatively god running section on a path alongside the river Tees. Being in a river valley the wind didn’t have much effect, especially as it was still dry. It was a good feeling to be out leading the race for a solid amount of time. I knew it was unlikely to last, but it would be interesting to see just how long I could hold on. No sign of John’s head torch behind.

Just after crossing the river it started raining heavily, so I added waterproof mittens as an outer layer (I was in 3 layers from the start of this leg). For a few minutes the rain / sleet was so intense that I could barely see around me, and I was mostly navigating on trail memory. Luckily, heading across the plain towards Widdy Bank farm the rain stopped, just leaving a head wind to contend with.

The next section has probably got the most technically difficult section of trail, where there are quite a few areas where steep broken rocks and boulders run all the way to the river, necessitating bouldering over the broken rocks. I was taking it very slowly and carefully, being exceptionally careful not to slip on a rock and break a bone.

Daylight was well up by the time I reached the waterfall at Cauldron Snout, and boy was it a cauldron. It was an impressively powerful sight, with a massive amount of water raging down the rocks. After climbing out through the cliffside, and following over the bridge above Cauldron Snout I was able to look down on the valley I had just come up. I reckoned I could see one runner making his way up. That was John, no doubt.

I did better than last year by keeping a running pace along the climb past the firing range (Showing red flags indicating it was active). The cloud was low, but high enough that I could still get the full view of the Maize Beck valley. I also managed to keep a running pace all the way up Maize Beck to reach perhaps the best view of the route at High Cup Nick. The cloud was just high enough that I could see the amazing view down the valley below.

High Nick Cup

A summer view of High Cup Nick from near the Peninne Way…. Stunning!

After a little bit of airy running undulating along the side of the valley the long descent down to Dufton finally began. Just as I was approaching the start of the farm track near Peeping hill I felt a little bump as John once again came flying past me. We both apologised to each other for the bump, and he once again flew off down the hill at a speed I could not have matched even if I wanted. Boy was the age difference between us clear here! Again, I was happy to have managed to get in front of John, and hold onto the lead for such a long period of time. Before the race I would not have anticipated that happening.

I made my way down to Dufton at my own relatively pedestrian pace, and made my way into the safety check point there. There was only hot and cold water available here, so I topped up one bottle with cold water. We also had to do a small kit check.

Just before I left Eugeni arrived in. He had clearly been flying through the previous section. Since he was on his own I guessed that he must have sorted out whatever issues he had been having with his GPS. We checked in on each other before I headed out the door. Pavel was in the room, and was able to help him with translations for the gear check for a short while. He left with John, about 5 minutes before I headed out after them, leaving Eugeni sorting out his kit.

Next up was the Climb up and over the series of mountains which culminated in Cross Fell, the highest point in the race. The half hour limit on staying in the Dufton checkpoint had been lifted to allow people to choose a weather window to make this traverse. We seemed to be in a bit of a (forecast) weather lull in Dufton, so none of us were hanging around!

In the early part of the climb I could see John slowly building a gap in front as he climbed steadily ahead. After the steepest section of the whole climb, just after the bridge crossing Swindale Beck, Pavel let John go, and waited for his pursuers. I reached him with Eugeni having closed the gap up to me completely.

Eugeni overtook me, and after a little bit of looking back also started building a gap, although not at the same rate that John had done. As usual I was happy to stick to my own pace and let them run their own races. Pavel went along with his camera to film Eugeni.

About two thirds of the way up it started snowing. As we were going to be hitting exposed windy ridges soon I stepped off the track into a sheltered dip and stopped to put on my Outdry Extreme waterproof down mid-layer, so I was now back to a warm and double-protected 4 layers. Eugeni and Pavel were disappearing out of sight whilst I did this.

By the time I reached the first big peak of Knock Fell it was a real winter wonderland scene, with snow completely covering the ground. The footsteps of the lads in front were being filled rapidly by the still falling snow. As usual, I made my own pace, keeping my effort nice and steady. The weather was now quite dangerous, as it usually is around Cross Fell during the Spine, but I was nice and comfortable in my winter gear.

The stone slabs along the route across through Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell, and finally the big push up onto Cross Fell, were impossible to see due to the layer of snow, but could be “tapped” with my walking poles to find the most solid route.

Near Gregs

Near Greg’s Hut

Coming off Cross Fell there was no trace of the route, so it was GPS work all the way down to find the start of the path to Greg’s Hut. It was still windy, snowing, and notably cold as I approached Greg’s Hut. I knew the legendary hospitality was waiting inside, but I elected to run straight past. It would be a lot easier than going into a warmer environment and then trying to leave again into the cold.

heading away from gregs

Heading Away from Greg’s Hut

Apparently John and Eugeni had both stopped here, and I was informed that I was only a few minutes behind Eugeni when I passed as a result. He was out of sight, though. That left me with the long steady descent off the mountain down into Garrigill. I ran out of light just before reaching the village and stopped to put my head torch on.

The regular crew of trail angels were waiting in Garrigill handing out drinks and treats. I slowed for a brief chat, before leaving the company behind to make the last part of the journey to CP4 running along the river valley towards Alston. I was starting to feel tired, as my circadian rhythms reacted to the darkness. That was good, from the point of view of getting good sleep at CP4 in Alston.

A good enthusiastic crew greeted me into CP4 at Alston. After de-gearing my layers I had a hot chocolate and baked potato with cheese. It pained me to turn down the lasagne on offer, but I was fully intending to stay gluten free as much as possible, even under race conditions. Chatting with the crew here I was surprised to learn that John had gone straight through here without sleeping. I wondered if he realised that even though the next stage looks easy on paper, due to the lack of big climbs, it was probably the most difficult in reality due to the awful under foot conditions. Lots of bog at the best of times.

I had no intention of suffering through the latter end of the next stage with sleep deprivation, so I was definitely sleeping here. I took two and a half hours of beautifully deep sleep, only woken at one point to the sound of cheering, presumably as Jayson arrived in.

After being woken I made my way down stairs to prepare to leave. Eugeni was already there, getting his legs looking after (he was lying on the floor with his feet raised against the wall getting some kind of deep massage). I then learned that Jayson had also gone straight through without sleeping and was also gone ahead up the trail after John. Those two were definitely pushing their sleep strategies. It would be interesting to see how they went.

Eating at CP3+

Baked Potato goes down well at CP4

I made it out the door before Eugeni. He seemed to be spending more time getting his feet ready. It looked like for now it was a battle for the last spot on the podium between Eugeni and myself. Since no-one else had arrived here we probably had a solid gap to the group behind. It was interesting to hear that Wouter, Simon and Sabrina were the next grupetto behind. Sabrina had a huge lead in the female race and seemed to be powering along. Wouter and Simon were having solid races. Everyone in this top 7 were part of my pre-race “people to watch”. Looks like I did a good job with my pre-race predictions.

I knew Eugeni was going to be faster than me, so wondered how long I would stay ahead. Heading through the Roman ruins at Whitley castle I could see his head torch behind, presumably closing in. I had to stop to adjust the wiring on my head torch as we headed through the mucky farmland near Kirkchaugh Station, and I could see him coming down the hill closing in.

Not long afterwards, a kilometer or two before hitting the road at Slaggyford he caught up with me. We said our hellos, before he ran on and slowly started building up a lead ahead. He was definitely fully confident in his GPS again.

A nice surprise was awaiting in Slaggyford, where I was given a cup of coffee by another wonderful trail Angel (“The Angel of Slaggyford”). She told me that Jayson was very chipper up ahead. He was clearly doing a good job with his sleep strategy, despite not stopping at CP4.

I really don’t like the Pennine Way along these sections. It is rough undulating ground, with a lot of bog. It seems to take forever to make very little progress. Still, it’s the same track for everyone! Coming towards the dip down and up before Lambley Common I could see Eugeni climbing out the other side of the dip. There was a second head torch with him, so I guessed there were film crews around. The only good thing about this section is that it is not as bad as what follows!

Heading down to the road crossing at the A689 I could see a van parked. It turned out to belong to the Japanese documentary crew. One of them pointed out a small container of goodies left by a trail angel for spine racers. I didn’t need anything from it. They told me that Eugeni was in the van having a break. Hmmmm…. I wasn’t sure about the legality of that. It was also odd that he was having a break here, having worked hard to overtake me and build a lead. The next section is very tricky to navigate, so I wondered if he planned to follow me here.

I headed over the fence and down through the non-existant trail. Finding the trail in here in the dark takes good trail hunting instincts, even with the GPS. About 5 minutes in I felt a presence behind me, and soon enough Eugeni was running right behind me. Since he had only recently overtaken me, and shown he was the faster runner, I slowed, waved him through, and told him to go ahead. Sure that was only polite 🙂

As he went ahead I was keeping a very close eye on him to see how mentally alert he was. It looked to me like he was having trouble reading his GPS at race speed, and was taking a lot longer than he should to figure things out. When he was running along he was making occasional stumbles that looked more like fatigue stumbles than anything else. I guessed that he was hoping to have a mental break through this section by just following my lead. But I wasn’t going to let that happen. He also asked me how long it was to the next CP. I just told him it was a very long way (we were less than half way there since CP4).

We headed down a short steep downhill section through a wooded area. He was having trouble and stumbling. Reaching the bottom he stopped to figure out where to head next. I stayed about 20 meters behind and waited. I could see a footbridge ahead which was the obvious track, but I wasn’t going to lead. After about a minute he figured it out and headed on. I turned my head torch off and let him head off into the distance. I was happy to let him off to work to find his own way, even though it was slowing me down to stay behind.

After a minute or two I turned my head torch on and headed on up the track. About 5 minutes later I was back about 50 meters behind Eugeni again. He was again struggling to work out the route. I stopped and turned my head torch off again, and waited for him to work his way forward.

A few minutes later I set off again. The navigation was easier now, and Eugeni was now a few hundred meters in front, occasionally looking back. About 5 minutes later I was approaching another small road crossing. I could see a van here again. It was the documentary crew of course, and one of them was going to join me for some filming.

As we headed off away from the road I asked how far in front Eugeni was. He told me that he was behind us in the van. I explained that I reckoned that it was against the rules for Eugeni to be using the van as a rest spot like that. But whatever, I now wanted to build enough of a lead quickly here so that Eugeni wouldn’t be able to simply follow my navigation, but would have to work out his own.

We climbed the gentle climb through the open bogland of Hartleyburn Common. I was joking with the cameraman that to call this part of the Pennine Way featureless would be too much of a compliment as it had a definite feature, and that feature was it was epicly crap. I occasionally looked back to see if I could see a head torch following, but couldn’t see any.

This is another section that seems to take forever with a big effort to make very little progress. I was doing a good job of finding what little track did exist though. I left my Cameraman companion behind at the A69 crossing, thankfully having put the worst of the featureless bog behind me, with still no trace of a following head torch. One last crossing of open land, followed by a run along the side of a golf course took me to the road crossing near Greenhead just before the start of the climb to Hadrian’s Wall.

There was a one-man checkpoint here. He let me know that Eugeni had pulled out of the race behind me. There was now a big gap ahead to Jayson and John (they had both been pulling away from me), and another big gap to the group behind. I reckoned I would be able to secure a podium result from here by just running my own race comfortably. With the two ahead running aggressive sleep strategies there was still a lot left to play out.

Hadrians wall 2

On Steel Rigg at Hadrian’s Wall

I tend to divide Hadrian’s wall into 3 sections in my head, divided by road crossings. It’s hard work to run/walk the steep ups and downs of the natural fortifications. The first section was done in darkness, with the light starting to come up through the second section. I was starting to feel sleep deprived running this middle section, and wondered if the two ahead were suffering even more due to their lack of CP4 sleep.

Hadrians Wall

Climbing on Hadrian’s Wall

The section along past Steel Rigg was in daylight, so I got to enjoy the superb classic views along here. It took until the end of the wall before the daylight scrubbed away the effects of sleep deprivation. However I was still feeling tired, especially my feet, so felt like I was making relatively slow progress. Progress was particularly slow through the waterlogged boggy trails around Haughton Common, both in the open ground and through the forest.

The slog was very nicely broken up by one or two trail angels along the way. As ever Horneystead farm was a huge highlight. I took a good 15 minutes or more here for a lovely chat with the Spine race’s original and best supporter. From there the trip to the next CP at Bellingham seems shorter. I just had to slog it out and get there.

With tired feet and a somewhat tired mind I arrived into CP5 at Bellingham. As usual I had my own race plan here, which was to take a relatively long sleep in preparation for the big push over the Cheviots to the finish, which I knew would take a full overnight stretch. I was thinking of a full 3 hours here, depending on the gaps.

I learned that John had not stayed too long here. And following him Jayson had taken even less time, hardly stopping at all. They were both way off down the trail heading for Byrness. Jayson was really pushing out his non-sleeping strategy. According the CP crew he was actually looking very chipper and in good shape. And looking at the current state of the trackers he was actually closing in on John, with plenty of time left to fully catch him. It was turning into some battle up front.

John and Jayson were both so far ahead of me that I had very little chance of catching them by outrunning them. The only way I was likely to catch one of them would be if they took themselves out of the race. Since they seemed to be pushing limits, this wasn’t just a small possibility, even at this late stage of the race. So from my point of view I didn’t have to factor racing them into my calculations.

I also had about a 4 hour gap to the group behind. They had now broken up and were not running together. Simon was leading the charge, with Wouter a kilometer or two behind. There was a slightly bigger gap to Sabrina after that. So given that I reckoned a 3 hour sleep was good to go, which would hopefully give me enough time to get out before Simon arrived in.

Eugeni was in the hall recovering and being treated for his various injuries. He was back to being his usual happy friendly self, and we communicated as best we could. He was indicating that his feet were what caused him to have to pull out of the race.

I had my usual hot chocolate and baked potato with cheese before pulling on my super-warm waterproof down jacket and settling in for a sleep on one of the couches in the designated sleeping hall. Just before heading into the hall news came through that Jayson had retired from the race due to picking up an injury. I was gutted for him not making the finish. But I knew he had pushed himself to aim for the win, and I admired and agreed with his call to give it a go. He would be back, and he will win this race in the future for sure.

It was a pretty solid sleep, thankfully. After being woken I changed into new gear for the final stage. The forecast was for dry but cold weather, so I would bring along all my warmest gear. As I was preparing Jayson arrived into the hall, and we had a bit of a chat. He seemed to be in pretty good spirits under the circumstances. I was glad to get the opportunity to commiserate with him in person.

I was literally up and walking towards the door as Simon arrived through the door right in front of me. We said our hellos, and I asked did he know he was now in 3rd place. After our brief chat I carried on out the door and on to the last leg of the race. It was dark again now, so it was head torch on from the get-go.

I could do the first few kilometers with my eyes closed, knowing it so well after the snow shoes “episode” from a few years ago. I wanted to keep a good pace up, as there was a good chance that either Simon or Wouter would take a much shorter break than me at CP5, and would close up considerably as a result. So I didn’t relax and kept the pace nice and steady, running where I could, allowing for terrain and slope.

The Pennine way route through Paddon Hill was reinstated this year. There had been a diversion around Paddon Hill for the last few years due to forest felling and path construction. I remembered getting “Land Down Under” stuck in my head as an earworm here the last time I ran on the Paddon Hill track, and as a result I had it back as an earworm again!

The old track after Paddon hill leading into the forest road through Redesdale Forest was one of the most awful boggy sections of the Pennine Way. Before this year’s race Al Pepper had been telling me about taking his dog with him on a recce here, and having to carry his dog on his shoulder almost the whole way as a result of the bog being so awful that the dog was stuck and unable to move. Thankfully this was the section where a new track had been built, so it was at least solid ground all the way this time.

Even though I was relatively well slept it was still nighttime, and the run along the forest road is a bit hypnotic and sleep inducing. I ended up doing a bit of singing to myself to try to keep myself more awake, with a few tunes from Chariots of Fire running through my head (and out into the forest). Spotting the moon rising to my right this then changed to singing “full moon rising”, even though it was only a half moon!

Pavel had been filming the two ahead earlier, and was waiting for me a few kilometers from Byrness, and joined me for some filming on the run into to the safety check in Byrness. No more singing! Byrness was the last oasis of civilisation before the big push over the Cheviots to the finish. There is a half an hour time limit on stopping here. That’s enough for some delicious “neeps and tatties” and a few cups of coffee for a caffeine hit. From the trackers I learned that my first pursuer had only just left CP5, so I had maintained a big lead to here. I wouldn’t be caught as long as I could just keep making forward progress. In front John was nearly at hut 2, so was practically home and hosed.

So I left Byrness with very little race pressure, and knowing I could keep the pace comfortable. I still wanted to get this finished up as soon as possible, so didn’t want to relax too much. Pavel was filming for the first half of the initial steep climb up onto the Cheviots ridgeline, but soon left to head back for the comfort of Byrness. So now I would have the Cheviots pretty much to myself for the rest of the race.

I enjoy the feeling of isolation up on the Cheviots. They are a very interesting and enjoyable range of hills. The weather was relatively benign. The wind was still pretty strong, but it was generally a tail wind. Thankfully there was no rain or snow. So it was relatively easy to keep a comfortable temperature despite the cold.

I made good progress along the initial ridges. Heading towards the old Roman camps at Chew Green I started to feel some sleep deprivation again. I tried to use this to focus on making steady forward progress towards Hut 1 at the base of Lamb Hill. Because of sleep deprivation time seemed to move a bit slower though. I was still running, and the boggy ground conditions meant I had plenty to concentrate on even when talking nonsense to myself.

When I finally reached hut 1 I decided I would reward myself by attempting to have a power nap there. I got out my phone and turned it on, and set an alarm for about 30 minutes time. I also put on my extra Outdry Extreme waterproof down jacket, lay down on the bench. Surprisingly I did get a nap here. Upon waking I decided to try something new. I had brought some earphones with me, so for the first time in a race I put them on, set the phone to airplane mode and started playing some music. I also treated myself to some gluten free christmas cake that my mother in law had made for me. Quite a treat up here in the middle of the Cheviots.

With that, I powered out of hut 1 and on up Lamb Hill. Something was working, as I was much more energised now. I started really enjoying the journey across the hills. The music was gelling in nicely. I was keeping an eye out for “the hole” which I had managed to fall into twice before, and which John had described falling into on his “Cheviot Goat” race report. With that much alertness I did poke it out with my poles and went around it for a change rather than soaking myself by plunging waist deep into it.

This year the windy Gyle lived up to its name, with a very strong cross wind building up on approach and peaking as I ran through the col. Last year I was having big sleep deprivation issues on the section from here. I had the Kate Bush song “Army Dreamers” stuck in my head, even though I hadn’t heard it in about 10 years, and had about 3 alter egos having a discussion in my head about how best to progress from here. Luckily this year nothing like this was happening. Instead I was singing along, and occasionally dancing to the music playing through my earphones, with no rowing alter-egos. The light started to come up here too, which also helped, both by moving my circadian rhythms onto a more awakened state, and also enabling me to see exactly what lay ahead.

The long draggy climb up from there went pretty smoothly as a result. The cloud height was low enough that I climbed into mist for a while, losing the great views. A sharp left turn at the peak of that climb starts what is in my head the final section, the descent towards Kirk Yetholm. After an initial flat section it soon dives into a very steep descent. The mist cleared to reveal spectacular views ahead, and the sight of Hut 2 far below. I could see that there were one or two people there. Pavel had said that he was scheduled to be there for filming.

With the music blasting into my ears, being fairly awake, and descending towards the finish I was in a fairly joyous mood. I warmly greeted Pavel and co when I descended down to them. A few minutes later I had run up to Hut 2, where there was an offer of a hot drink. But I was flying now and didn’t want to stop at all, so declined the kind offer and carried on.

There is a sting in the tail here, with a little bump ahead, followed by a haul up the last major climb to the Schil. But in my energetic state I made relatively light work of it with a combination of running and fast marching. Pavel left to return to Hut 2 before the start of the Schil climb. After cresting the Schil it was pretty much all downhill from there. I took it all at a steady pace. There were a few people out getting in some morning exercise, and warm hellos were exchanged with them all.

When I reached the road in the valley I was starting to feel tiredness in my feet, so even though I was still running I wasn’t actually moving very fast. Coming down the hill I had realised there was a chance of finishing in under 100 hours, but I soon decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to push for that, so I was now simply ambling in as best I could. Before the last little stinger of a hill climb my old friend Damon joined me to welcome me to the finish. He was keeping his tradition of meeting the leaders on the Cheviots. Unlike last year I decided it wasn’t worth even trying to run the last hill, so simply walked up and over, to see the very welcome sight of Kirk Yetholm.

I got myself back running again for the approach to the finish line. I did a little leap before finally tapping the wall to finish the Spine race. And boy was I happy. Second place was a great result from my point of view. I had always known that an athlete of John Kelly’s calibre was the red hot favourite to win. I was happy to have made him have to work for it here and there! It was great to see that John was there to see me finish, and it was a true honour that he was the one to present me with my race finisher’s medal. We had a nice enjoyable chat on the finish line.

chatting at finish

Chatting with John at the finish

I was on a high for the rest of the day, and enjoyed being part of the Spine family, and staying in “the bubble” for as long as possible.

After Finish

Settling down on the finisher’s couch

My pre-race predictions turned out to be very on-point, with Simon and Wouter arriving in later in the day having agreed to finish together as joint 3rd. Later that night Sabrina arrived in with a huge win in the female race, as well as great overall time. For the second year in a row the first British runner to finish was female. Jayson and Eugeni were also in the mix right at the front of the field of course. But injuries took them out of the race. In the Spine taking care of yourself and making it the finish line is all part of the race game. Finding the balance between maximising your potential performance and pushing it that little bit too far is another skill which the Spine will test to its limits.

Another big source of satisfaction from my performance this year was competing with athletes who are a lot younger than I am. There is a huge gap between myself and athletes like John and Jayson. I seem to be mentioning this factor more and more in my race reports. But that is because I am noticing myself how I am losing speed as well beyond my 50th birthday. I do get the benefits of experience and a certain amount of wisdom though, which is some compensation.


Thanks to Columbia for providing me with such great gear which was perfectly suited to the running environment of this race. The Outdry Extreme shells were with me all the way, and were key to being comfortable throughout the race. It adds hugely to my confidence knowing that I have the right gear to take on whatever extreme the weather throws my way.

Thanks also to Richard Donovan from Global Running Adventures for everything he does for me, and for the ultra running community in general. Thanks also to the Great Outdoors shop in Dublin for helping me with other key pieces of gear like my Leki walking poles. They took quite a battering in the race, but survived intact and fully functional.

Thanks to Helen for sanity checking all the Spine preparation. Thanks to everyone in the Spine Family, from CP crews to Saftey teams, to HQ for making such an amazing experience for the athletes. Thanks also to all the trail Angels adding unexpected treats along the way. Special thanks to Damon and family for being the origal end of race trail Angels, and for looking after me when I’m at my most battered. Thanks to anyone who helped along the way, and thanks to everyone who ws following online. All messages of support are always read and appreciated.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 19 Comments

The Spine Race 2020 – Preview

New year, old bones. But as usual early in January it is Spine time! This Sunday, 12th January, the Spine race is due to start at 8am in Edale. I took part yet again last year. I surprised myself a bit by having a pretty good race. I ended up running my second best ever Spine time, and winning the Male category. Of course that was only good enough for second place, 15 hours behind Jasmin Paris’ incredible record breaking time. Eugeni was quite a distance ahead of me towards the end, but as I approached the finish I discovered he had been rescued 6km short of the finish line. So winning the male category was an unexpected surprise.

For most of the year I had been thinking that I would give the race a miss this year. But in the end it drew me back in. It would probably be more painful to watch the dots moving across the map wondering how I would be doing than to be a dot being blasted by whatever the weather throws at us. So in the end I signed on for yet another go at this epic race.


What is the Spine Race?

The Spine Race is a solo unsupported non-stop self-navigated running race along the length of the Pennine Way through the spine of England and into Scotland. Running this 400km+ route would be interesting enough at the best of times, but the fact that it takes place in the depths of winter ensures its a true epic expedition style race.


The Spine Race Route

This is how it is described on the race website:

“Widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. A truly epic challenge that will test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. Racing non-stop along the most iconic trail in the UK, you will experience the full intensity and ferocity of the British Winter. Prepare yourself for the biggest challenge of your life.

The Pennine Way is one of the most demanding National Trails in Britain, and certainly the most iconic. The trail crosses some of the most beautiful and at times difficult terrain found in England, including; the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland National Park, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots; finishing at the Scottish Borders.

Expect to face extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, ground water, storm force winds and driving rain in a grueling, non-stop, 7-day race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

It’s not just the conditions that are against you, your own body and mind could become your worst enemy. Tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation and exposure to the extremes of winter weather are all to be expected. To finish you must be prepared and willing to push yourself harder than ever before.

There is very little hand holding on this race. We expect you to travel with a degree of self-sufficiency and skill which sets this race apart from others. Why? You should never embark on an adventure of this magnitude without the appropriate knowledge and skill to make yourself safe in a time of need. There is nothing more personally reassuring than being secure in your own abilities. That said, we still attach a GPS tracker to you with an emergency button just in case!”

The Competition

There are quite a number of interesting runners entered into this year’s race. There are at least 3 past winners (counting myself), but I wouldn’t make any of them favourites. For me there is one stand-out person to watch this year, who is John Kelly.

I have only briefly met and talked to John. But where and when I met him is why he is a legend of the ultra running world (Frozen head state park, during the Barkley Marathons). John is the last person (one of only 15 people) to win and complete the Barkley Marathons (and if you’re familiar with the way the race works, that means John completion was the most difficult course completed to date. He has also been a very competitive Ironman triathlete. He moved to the UK last year, so should be becoming familiar with the local conditions that the Spine will challenge him with. So he has speed, and he can deal with adversity. It’s going to be interesting to see how he does, and how he compares the race to the Barkley. To my mind, he’s the one to beat.

Eugeni Rose Sole is returning again this year. I was wondering would his rescue last year put him off, but it looks like he is bouncing right back in. There were some notable things about his race last year. He was considerably faster than he has ever been before. If he brings that kind of speed back with him this year he will also be a contender to win. It was also notable that he spent a considerable amount of time on his own successfully navigating his own way. So he has the skill sets needed to get to the end of the race, and win!

There are a few other notably fast runners entered. Wouter Huitzing is a very fast finisher (and past winner) of the “baby” version of the Spine, the challenger. So he knows the first third of the course very well, can deal with the conditions, and has proven speed. If he can bring that speed to bear over the longer distance of the full spine then he should be very competitive.

Jason Cavill is returning to the Spine to give it another go. He was nudging away at the front of the field last year when he had to pull out due to injury. He’s got enough speed to be another contender, and will have learned plenty from last year, even without covering the full course.

There are plenty of other solid runners who have potential to compete at the front end of the field. Tom Hollins is a past winner of the race, is an obvious one. I’m personally a huge admirer of Tom for the way he won the Spine, and also as a fantastic person. If I spent the entire race in Tom’s company I know I’d have a memorable enjoyable race. Simon Gfeller is another Spine veteren with solid high place finishes. He recently won a “last one standing” race in Spain, so looks to be in excellent endurance form. Gwynn Stokes put in a solid race last year. If he is getting faster then he could be a dark horse to watch.

In the Women’s field there are two names that stand out to me. Sabrina Verjee is a very experienced adventure racer well used to dealing with all kinds of adversity. She also won (outright) the summer version of the Spine, amongst many other great wins in the last few years She looks like the favourite. Also running is another person I’ve shared many races with over the years, Debbie Martin Consani. Debbie has represented the UK at ultra running many times, and so is obviously a solid fast runner. She also has lots of trail running experience, including a good finish are the TDG. Living in Scotland, the Spine could be a sun holiday for Debbie! It could be a cracking race between those two.

There is a bigger field than ever this year, so no doubt I’ll have missed someone in my quick run through the field. Plus, the spine is a race that is most definitely never about who is good on paper!

Given the strength of the field I’m not expecting to win this year. Of course that doesn’t rule it out, but it’s just unlikely. Even a podium finish might require me to break my PB for the race (or an equivalent level of performance if the weather turns really bad). As I get older I’m definitely losing speed. On a race like the Spine experience and bloody minded perseverance can make up for some of that. But all other things being equal, someone younger and faster should still be able to win. I’ll simply set out to run my own race and enjoy it as much as I can.

Gear Gear Gear

This year I’ll mostly be using gear and equipment that has been tried and tested in previous events. Thanks go out to my fantastic sponsors Columbia and the Great Outdoors, who make this endevour so much easier by equiping me with amazing gear. This race is so often first and so most a survival event, taking on horrific conditions. Having the right gear is particular critical in races like this.


As usual, the live tracking should be excellent, and is available at http://live.thespinerace.com/. The main race website is here. I expect the usual high standard of reporting will be available on their facebook feed, hopefully along with video updates.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 3 Comments

UTMB Oman 2019 : Part 2

Now things were getting interesting! The first big life base aid station was shaking things up very nicely from my point of view. I reckoned I was departing the only 3 or 4 minutes behind Hamdan. Game on…!

Post race timings at the Alila aid station show that I arrived in 45 minutes behind Hamden, and 20 minutes ahead of Alfie. Two French runners and a Thai runner (Phairat Varasin, the highest ranked runner in the race) were within 10 minutes of Alfie. Without me knowing it, Alfie retired from the race here, I can also see that I had spent about 7 minutes here, whereas Hamdan had spent 48 minutes.

The trail makes it way out through the grounds of the Alila hotel. I could see Hamdan look back from the crest of a small hill in front. I was wondering would I be able to close in on him from here. He disappeared over the hill and out of sight again. I got myself back into steady running again. Last year I had a big cramping episode around here in the mid morning sun, so any running at all would be an improvement on that.


The 170km Course Route

I was actually running quite fluidly. Soon I was out of the Alila grounds and back into the undulating plains. After about 15 minutes I reached the road I had run in on to close out the Alila loop. It was straight across this to another short off road section, before popping back out on the good tarmac road, this time heading in the opposite direction away from the Alila.

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

It’s a nice moderate downhill to begin with on this road with a good long sightline ahead. No trace of Hamdan though. Then the road winds around and starts ascending again, before a flattish section into the small village of Ar Rus, where there is a small water aid station. I just grabbed a quick drink of coke here before quickly heading on out back onto the off-road single track trail again.

(Post race timings show that Hamdan had opened up an 11 minute lead here. In turn I had a 43 minute lead on Phairat. But I had no idea of either of those gaps).

I knew it felt like a long long haul to the next aid station from here last year. It was nice to be back in the isolation of the technical trails again. After a while I had a view across a dip in the landscape in front and caught sight of Hamdan’s head torch light pool ahead. He had opened a noticeable gap on me, so I definitely wasn’t going to catch him. Far from it. I was sticking with my own pacing. We were still yet to even pass the halfway point (just), so I was happy tactically with how the race was panning out. There was definitely the possibility that Hamdan might be working a little too hard to rebuild his lead.

After a long undulating section the trail then began a steady climb which went on for quite a while. This did a bit of zig-zagging, which allowed me to occasionally look back to see if I could see any chasers. I wasn’t able to definitely identify any (there were lights, but they could have been from houses, or something else fixed). So I reckoned I must have a good enough lead. Still, definitely no room for complacency. At this stage I was probably about halfway in terms of race distance. So the race was really only starting to warm up, metaphorically. Funnily enough it was going the other way in reality. As I hit the top of this climb I actually started feeling a little cool from the cross wind that was blowing.

The trail tracked around a long traverse, followed by another gentle runnable climb. Then it was into a view over an open valley. Not that I could see the view at night, as it was too dark, but I remembered it from last year. I caught a glimpse of Hamden’s head torch climbing up the other side of the valley in the distance… the gap was growing in time terms for sure.

It was quite a steep rocky technical zig zag descent to the valley floor, taking all my concentration. Then a nice flat run across the valley, trying to keep a good steady pace going. Then, of course, the pay back of a good long technical climb back up out of the valley. Looking back from the area where I reckoned I had caught my glimpse of Hamden I couldn’t see anyone in turn following on behind. That’s good.

I was now properly feeling that I was running alone, with no sign of anyone for a long distance in front or behind. It was the first time really feeling that in this race. I tend to enjoy that feeling, and like the fact that I’m in the wilderness on my own, having full responsibility for looking after myself and staying safe, without a fallback of knowing there is someone nearby if anything goes badly wrong.

It did take a long time to reach the next aid station at Qiyut, as I remembered it would. I hadn’t the route 100% remembered in my head, and had been mixing up parts of this section with the following one. So it was nice to finally land into the station at Quyt (which itself I had mixed up with the following aid station in my memory). I knew this was where the 50km race joined in with our race. A glance at the watch showing it was still 4 in the morning, or so, meant I knew there would be way too early for any possible overlap of the two races.

It was the usual rapid aid station routine here, with a quick water bottle refill and grabbing a bite of fruit before rapidly heading away again. (Looking back at the race timings I can see the Hamden had opened up his lead to 27 minutes by hear. In turn I had about 40 minutes of a gap to Phairrat. The French pair of runners were now over an hour behind, and definitely out of sight, out of mind).

I was 50/50 at this point as to whether to put on another layer of clothing, as I was right on the edge of comfort with the chill from the wind. But I decided to press on and keep the non-running time to a minimum. Being so isolated from visible race rivals it I was making sure to concentrate on keeping the pace up by imagining the runners behind being close enough to be just out of visibility. Being a little on the chilly sight probably helped keep the pace up too, but that wasn’t deliberate.

This section was still all off-road trail, with varying degrees of technical difficulty. It had been enjoyable in the daylight last year. The rough knowledge of the route was if anything making it more enjoyable this year. The trail was a series of small ups and downs. They seemed to go a lot easier than I had remembered them. The most technical section was the last long descent leading down towards the next aid station. The sight of that in the distance made that flow quite smoothly as well.

Again, the usual pattern repeated at this aid station at Sharaf Al Alamyn. (Post race timings show Hamden had pushed out his gap to 32 minutes, whilst I was now about 50 minutes ahead of Phairat). Another coke, and a few date to eat walking out from the aid station. From here it is a big change in terrain.

This section starts with about a kilometer or two (it feels long enough) of gentle tarmac road climbing. Even though it is a gentle climb it now takes a real effort to run up. But bar 10 or 20 meters I made the effort to keep running, without pushing too hard. There were quite a few cars parked up with campers off the side of the road. It must be a popular camping spot for the locals. The tarmac ends at the peak of the climb, but the road keeps going.

From here the road nosedives down into a steep descent. It’s still road, but now a dirt track. Last year this turned out to be the only place where sand-gators might have had a role, ironically enough. The traffic had created a thick layer of fine powder dust covering the road. However, presumably because of the rains that preceded the race this year, there was now powder dust this year. That didn’t necessarily make things much better. This was a hard surface for a steep descent. And being nominally road it was an opportunity to run at a relatively good clip. Since these opportunities are few and far between in this event, that opportunity has to be exploited.

Heading down the road there are sharp drop offs to one side, with good views of the lights of villages far below, and vertiginous cliffs looming on the other side. I could see a light ahead in the far distance, and wondered was in Hamden. However after a few minutes I figured out it was static, and must be a house of some kind. This descent is very very long, so I knew I had to relax back and drift more than push down the hill as much as possible. The most important thing was not to over-speed and wreck my muscles.

The first traces of daylight were starting to appear. Dawn and dusk are probably the most spectacular times for views in the mountains here. And it didn’t disappoint here. Despite being on the road I still was descending from a big height, so had great views of the sky turning brighter behind the surrounding mountains.

There was an intermediate aid-station passing a road junction about ¾ way down the mountain. By then it was fully daylight, and I was no longer using my headtorch. I didn’t need to stop here, so just greeted the helpers and ran on past. A final kilometer or two of road descending followed.

A left turn off road finally broke the pattern. This led into a wadi/canyon, which was a relatively short but fun technical section. This then led into the village of Balad Sayt. The route leads through some lovely green irrigated crop fields, before finally heading back into the village, up a short climb and into the “life base” aid station at Balad Sayt.

This was the second (and final) aid station where we could pick up a drop bag. Yet again I arrived to find that Hamdan was still here. This life base wasn’t anywhere near as luxurious as the Alila. That actually made it easier for me to put my rapid transition into effect. All I had to do this time was refill my water bottles with the fruit juice I had packed into my drop bottle. I also adjusted the water bottle holders on my back pack, and ate a few bits of fruit, and drank some coke, whilst doing that.

Hamdan made his move to exit pretty much as soon as he saw me arrive in. Again, in a near repeat of the first Life Base Aid station I exited about 3 or 4 minutes behind him. More easy time gained. (Post race Analysis of the timings shows that I arrived here having closed to gap down to about 24 minutes. I was about an hour ahead of Phairat by now. What I definitely didn’t know at the time was that Phairat pulled out here, giving me a huge nearly 2 hour lead over the following French pair of runners)

Now it gets very interesting indeed. For the 135km what looms ahead is the major climb of the race, nicknamed the VK for vertical Kilometer. It’s about 1000m of constant steep technical exposed climbing. Running is not the word, that’s for sure. With the sun rising I was hoping I might make it through this before the heat ramped up. As luck would have it, the sun was still low enough starting out that the surrounding hills were still shadowing the section of the climb I could see ahead.

There’s nothing for this only to knuckle down, concentrate, and try to put out a constant steady effort.  About 5 minutes into the climb I looked up to see if I could see Hamdan, and how he was progressing. I noticed that someone was climbing with him, which was odd. Rising higher and higher the views starting getting more epic. I had the occasional look back down towards the aid station, but couldn’t see any sign of anyone following. On the other hand, the trail was so steep and technical, weaving around rock formations and cliff faces, that I couldn’t see any sign of Hamdan ahead any more (although I did hear voices in the lower half of the climb occasionally).

Luckily the steepness of the surrounding hills ensured that most of the climb was in shadow rather than direct sunlight. I was still very very glad to get this massive climb out of the way and top out at the drinks aid station on “Top W8”. I grabbed a quick coke here, along with a quick chat with the aid station crew. As I was running off one of them ran along nearby taking photos, and said that Hamdan had walked out. I could just see him on top of the small peak ahead. He had pulled out about a 13 minute lead on me to the aid station.

Top of VK

Approach the top of the VK

Soon enough I was back to walking myself to make it up to the top of the mini peak ahead via a far more gentle climb that could be marched up, rather than hauled up. It was around here last year that the light started fading with the sun setting. The opposite was happening this year, with the sun steadily rising. The good thing about being relatively high in the mountains though was that it took the edge off the sun’s heat. As a result I didn’t need to get out my sun hat. There were particularly exceptional views out to the left, with the big drop to the valley I had just climbed up from.

I remembered practically every rock of this section of the route from last year. It was quite technical, with one particularly exposed section descending and climbing around a small cliff in the way of the logical straight line route. There was one more zig-zag haul up a medium sized hill to get to the highest point of the 135km route. Through all this I could see no sign of anyone in front or behind.

Topping out at a small communications mast here I remembered looking at the taller hills in the distance and worrying that I might have to climb them last year. But of course I didn’t. This year though, that’s exactly what would be required. The decision point was approaching!

After a bit of flattish running the descent off this highpoint starts in earnest. There were a lot of twists and turns with a few very steep sections on relatively loose ground. Not exactly a high speed section. Again, it took full concentration to make good speed through this descent. Towards the bottom, situated in a saddle between two hills I could see the cluster of people in the aid station. As I got within two or three hundred meters I could see Hamdan leaving and heading off in the opposite direction to the 135km course. Oh well. There would be no easy overtake here, he was definitely on the full course. Again I could see another person heading off a little behind him (not wearing a race number).

(Post race timing shows that I arrived here 11 minutes behind Hamdan, so I had actually managed to stop the time losses over that section of the course. Behind me I now had a massive nearly 3 hour gap. Interestingly the third runner was now the first female racer, Kaori Niwa from Japan, just in front of the two French runners).

I arrived into the aid station, Col Trail Split, where they told me I would need to undergo a mandatory medical check if I wanted to continue on the full course. Any 170km runner had the option at this point of choosing to change onto the 135km course. It was pretty much all downhill from here if you took that option. Given that it is nearly 120km into the race I could imagine that there would be a lot of takers for this option (and indeed looking into the 135km results that proved to be the case). There wasn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that I was heading on into the full 170km course though.

I grabbed a coke and a bit of banana for my medical check. They insisted I sat in a chair for the check. This was actually my first time not standing or running since before the start of the race. The medical check was quite comprehensive, given the circumstance, with a series of questions along with a blood pressure and heart rate check. I was pronounced to be in good condition and allowed off onto the full course.

And so it was exit stage right into the unknown. From here until within the last 10km of the race I would be covering new ground for me. The trail went up over the top of the saddle before heading right and downhill off the other side. The downhill came as a sharp shock. The trail quality became substantially more wild. The trail was much much less obvious, as it was clearly much less used. There was also way more vegetation around and on the trail, so that I was now pretty much constantly pushing it aside as I tried to run along.

The 135km course is one of the more technical courses I had run on, and this was ramping things up to another level. I was internally giggling at that, whilst externally struggling to make any kind of decent speed. Boy, the 170km was going to take a lot more time than I had anticipated if it continued like this (I guesstimated about 30 hours being the minimum finish time I would manage beforehand). And this wasn’t even the big peak. I remembered from the race profile that there was a smaller bump in the way first.

After 10 or 15 minutes of descending and traversing I was climbing this bump. The trail was much wilder than the preceding climbs, and notably more difficult as a result. Even though I was altitude I could also feel the heat effect from the sun, but not quite enough to put on my desert cap. The climb crested over a col, and continued along flatter gentle climbing ground, but still very technical terrain.

Eventually the descent started, and from a technical point of view things didn’t ease up much at all. There was a bit less vegetation on this side of the hill, but the rocky terrain was still highly technical, and steep enough so that fast descending was out of the question. A few hundred meters into the descent there was an army jeep above the trail (I’d guess on safety watch), and they cheered me by as I waved back.

The descent took way longer than I thought it should do. It was actually fun ground to run on, but I was finding the lack of speed combined with the high levels of concentration required to be a little frustrating. It finally bottomed out in a dry riverbed crossing, and I put my hand through the pole straps knowing that this was most likely the start of the climb to the highest mountain in Arabia.

A few hundred meters on I stopped in the shade of a small tree to take off my back-pack, get out my desert hat and put it on. There was a small group of people not far beyond. I was thinking that they were spectators, but when I reached them a few minutes later it turned out to be a water station. I was glad of the chance to top up my water bottle (I still had a nearly full juice bottle as well), so that I had the maximum liquid load heading into the big climb.

I hadn’t seen Hamdan since he left the Col Trail split, so I was assuming that he was back to rebuilding his lead over me again. Equally, I hadn’t seen anyone behind, but I was working on the assumption that any chasers were just out of sight.

This climb was still maintaining the highly technical wild terrain, but was now adding relentless steepness on top. It was pretty hot as well. I was still making sure to pace this very carefully so as not to burn myself out. Even after this climb there was still a long way to go to the finish, and if it stayed as technical as this then it would take a long time to get there. This was definitely way beyond the difficulty of the chamonix UTMB. I was hoping this would work in my favour.

The path was taking a route I wasn’t really expecting. I could visually see higher ground off to my left, but the path was wandering rightwards. I’m guessing it was avoiding getting cliffed out. At times I thought I could hear occasional shouts. I was presuming that it was a goat herder or similar (I had encountered one earlier in the race), or that I was just hearing things… audio hallucinations in the midday heat!

The path led up to a bank of cliffs that had been looming overhead for most of the climb, and steeply climbed along the edge of the cliff, with the cliff wall to the right, and a huge view out over steep ground to the left. The trail ran out at the bottom of a series of chain steps up the rock wall. Oh boy, this was getting full-on! There was definitely no room for mistakes here, so I very slowly and carefully worked up the rock face on the chain steps, making sure that each handhold and foot placement was 100% secure. This was slow progress, but at least the climbing was direct!

The slope eased off a bit from near-vertical, and finally I was through the chain sections. As I popped out onto flatter ground I was confronted by a very unexpected sight. Hamdan was stopped here, propped against a rock, with his his non-racing companion nearby. I said hello to them and checked that Hamdan was Ok. He said he was having issues with his leg. It looked to me like he might have cramped.

Now this really was game on! For the first time it was looking really possible that I could win this race outright, not just my age category (which was pretty much locked in at this point as long as I got to the finish). The thought of that sent a shiver of anticipation through me. I was tired, but had paced well to hear. To be cramping Hamdan had definitely pushed a little too hard at some point. We still had a long way to go. There was plenty of time and distance to recover and get his speed back. But nonetheless this was a promising position from my point of view.

I went past Hamden, only to realise there were no markers. His friend pointed out to me what I had just figured out myself, which was the trail went up the cliff face just behind Hamdan. So back I went and started scramblin up the cliff face. Seeing me had probably psched Hamdan up enough to do what was necessary to get going again, so he and his friend followed right behind me.

I decided to try to up the pace a little, to the maximum I could comfortably manage, to see if Hamdan could match it, or if he would cramp again trying to match it. They were able to follow along at a similar pace not far behind. The trail was very nice and interesting along this section. It was following along the base of some steep cliffs. With an interesting mix of vegetation and technical ground.

Another turn took us up a steep climb between the cliff faces. Hamadan put in a bit of a push as I was route finding the track and went back in front again. I was happy to let him go again, but he didn’t pull away. For the rest of the climb up the mountain we were back and forth, depending how the trail was heading, with Hamdan pushing harder on the steeper section, whereas I was trotting a little more quickly on the flatter sections. His friend was running either side of us, taking occasional pictures with his camera phone.

The trail climbed up to the base of another big cliff wall and then turned and went right along the base of the cliff in flatter runnable terrain . After I while I could see a bunch of people on top of a dip in the top of the cliffline. Another few minutes brought me under this bunch of cheering people, where there was another set of chain steps to get up over the rock face. Again I carefully climbed up step by step, with Hamdan not too far behind.

This popped me out at the water aid station on the course highpoint – Summit Split. I did a quick water bottle refill here. Hamdan didn’t hang around too much here, and exited within a minute of me. I was hoping that my speed through aid station might be another thing which could disrupt his rhythm. Soon enough he was back up running right behind me. This wasn’t a descent, but a slow climb contouring around a high point. As well as Hamdan’s usual companion we now had another photographer for company. This guy seemed more official though, as he had a full SLR type camera. Given the speed Hamdan and myself were doing 130km into the race neither was having a problem keeping up with us, to say the least.

Descending from Highpoint start

Starting the descent with Hamdan following closely.

After a while did finally start descending, albeit fairly gently. I just picked up to my usual steady downhill trot. I was very gradually starting to pull away from Hamdan. A few seconds later Hamdan came rocketing past running down hill at a good fast pace. I wasn’t going to attempt that pace at this point, so was happy to let him away. He flew on down the hill at pace. When he was about 100 meters ahead he pulled back to a walking pace, clutching his thigh. He had either cramped or injured himself with that effort.

I carried on with my steady pace, and within a minute or two I was back with him (and his entourage). So now I had an end of race plan in my head. If we were still together heading away from the last aid station before the finish I would launch a maximum speed sprint to either speed away from him, or have him match me with the danger of breaking himself (looking much more likely now).

Hamdan didn’t let me get past him, and picked up his pace to match mine. So we were now running along as a group of 4, with me basically setting the pace. The ground flattened out before crossing through a small dry wadi valley, then up a small hill which skirted us past another obvious highpoint (The large radar installations on the highpoint making it very obvious indeed from quite a distance away.

Descending from Highpoint 2

Descending from the Highpoint

From there the trail started into a gentle descent. It was still nice technical rocky ground. I made a quick pit-stop, but soon caught up with the others once I was back trotting down the hill. So it looked like Hamdan wasn’t going to jump on any opportunities to break away (I would guess that was because he was still constrained by his cramping potential). After a few minutes I worked my way to the front of the little group to set a slightly faster pace on the downhill. I felt I could push the speed up a little on the technical ground by more assertive running over the technical ground, pushing my comfort levels a little closer to the limits.

I wasn’t paying too much attention to the others, as I was concentrating heavily on covering the technical ground effectively, and making sure to find the trail markers in good time (Missing one would result in a few seconds of stop and search). After a while I noticed that I had opened up a 50 meter gap on Hamdan’s group. Now this was interesting. The tactic here was obvious… keep doing what is working.

After a while a small valley crossing was followed by a little climb of noe more than 50 meters, which made a change from the very long downhill to this point. I powered through at a steady pace without looking back. Unusually there were a few “tourists” on the trail around this point. I hadn’t seen anyone not associated with the race on the trails in a long long time. The routed did a long arcing turn to the right, whilst continuing gently downhill. I kept my determined concentrated downhill pace going.

I could see a small town on a plain in the distance, which is where I anticipated the next aid station would be. There was a small canyon between the trail and the town, so no doubt that would need to be crossed. The views were great, but I was spending most of my time looking at the trail concentrating on keeping the pace up without crashing to the floor.

Eventually the inevitable finally happened… running between two small vertical rocks I tripped on a small rock between them, and crashed to the ground onto a pile of rocks. Yes, this was a rocky technical trail! It took a few seconds to get back up and get going again. That hurt, but no major damage done. I had managed to create a few new cuts on my legs and arms though. It definitely looked worse than it was in reality. I didn’t notice Hamdan’s gang behind throughout this little episode.

Sure enough a right turn took me down into the small canyon and back up the otherside, and on through some lovely trail running territory. I was actually enjoying this terrain a lot. The trail flattened out a kilometer or two from the town, which made for a nice steady run up to and on to a dirt road, which then took me into the village and up the the aid station at Sama Resort.

As usual, my aim here was to get in and out as fast as possible. I grabbed a little bit of fruit, and had some coke to drink, whilst also getting my water bottle refilled. As I was doing all this I could see some of the aid station staff looking out behind me and getting excited. I wasn’t going to look back, but I was just going to assume the worst, and that Hamdan was following in a few minutes behind. I was happy enough to have created a full “aid station stop” gap. But this was enough to ensure that I completed my last task of getting out my head torch (light was starting to fade a bit, and it clearly be needed soon), and heading out and on my way again.

The route out through the village wasn’t completely obvious to me, but some friendly locals sent me off down the correct direction. Within a minute or two I was back on a climb on moderately technical trail up a relatively small hill. It wasn’t too steep, so considering that Hamdan could still be pretty close behind, I made sure to keep up a steady run, rather than relax to walking up. The trail arced leftwards around the hill before descending again, giving a nice view of the trail crossing a few hundred meters of flattish ground ahead. Nice steady running territory. The trail was definitely a lot less technical in this section.

Working my way up the next small hill, I could see the village I just come from out to my left. It looked like the trail had done a long arcing 180 degree turn. It was getting quite dark now, but I decided to try to avoid using my head torch for as long as I could, just in case it would give Hamdan a target to chase. I did have a few looks around to see could I see any sign of following torches, but I couldn’t see any.

Coming onto the crest of this hill I could see a small road ahead, with quite a few cars parked up. There seemed to be a lot of local families out camping / picnicking here. I ran across the road, past the locals, and on up the rest of the gentle climb. The gentle descent down the other side had a few more slightly wilder campers, some right on the trail who had to be worked around. This was proving to be a relatively fast runnable section.

At this point I finally needed to turn on my head torch to see where I was going. All the locals camping would provide a bit of “cover though! Things got easier when the trail dropped onto a road. The course followed the road down, and then on another gentle climb for a few hundred meters, before leading off on another relatively fast off-road trail. This was shaping up to be a nice easy stage.

A few minutes later the trail turned right and started descending. It also qick;y became extremely technical. The entire mountain seemed to be a mass of loose broken rock, with no obvious trail. Just the occasional green dot reflected back from the markers ahead. Now I was back o slowly and carefully picking my way down the mountain. On paper this would have looked like a nice fast descent by profile. In reality it was so technical that it would probably have been equally fast to run uphill in the opposite direction.

This downhill seemed to go on and on and on. Because of the technical terrain it was taking a huge amount of concentration to keep moving forward, especially when combined with having to look up to find the next green dot ahead to stay on track. If anything things got even trickier as the descent continued. I could see lights on a road below and ahead, but as time went by they didn’t seem to be getting much closer.

After what seemed like an hour or so of this I could eventually see I was getting close to a village off to my left, which must be where the next aid station was located. The track still managed to take a nice technical meander to get there. Eventually I did drop down though some old ruined buildings and out onto a dirt road.

There was a good crowd of local spectators clustered near the aid station on this road, who were showing great enthusiasm for the race. I finally reached the aid station at Riwaygh, where I did my usual quick water refill before quickly heading back out again. I had been very occasionally checking for pursuing head torches when heading down the mountain. I thought I might have seen one behind me, but wasn’t 100 percent sure. Even if it was Hamdan, I was still unsure exactly how far behind he was. I knew that if he still had an entourage with him it would be massively helpful to have more head torches and more sets of eyes for route finding.

The route out of here started nice and flat on the remainder of the dirt road. It then followed a tarmac road through the village itself, which seemed to last a kilometer or more. I had another look back, and could see for sure that there was a head torch coming down the hill. I knew I was at minimum 15 minutes or so ahead. But it was very hard to tell how far up the hill Hamdan still was in the dark. I presumed the worst, and that he was close to the bottom of the hill.

Back to my own progress, and I was endeavoring to keep a steady jog going on this relatively straightforward flat section. The route veered off the tarmac road onto a dirt road. I had a few locals catch up with me in a car here who were cheering me on and wishing me well. Once even tried to take selfie with me whilst we were running along, but the car lights were ruining his picture!

A few hundred meters later the markers (which were flags on sticks) seemed to run out. I then came across a camel grazing nearby. I reckoned that anyone retrieving the markers here would find them chewed up in a camel dung pile! The markers resumed shortly afterwards. Finally the markers turn me left off the first and onto a single track trail. This lead into a wadi canyon with steep cliff walls on either side. After an initial flattish section this soon started to climb very steeply. I knew this was the last of the big climbs in the race. Time to knuckle down again, and put in another big effort.

Even though it was dark, I could see this was a spectacular wadi. A lot of the climbing was straight up the steep worn rock that was obviously carved out by the gushing waters that made this wadi canyon. At times it was steep enough that I occasionally could reach out and use hands as well as feet to climb. An occasional natural step would make that a necessity. Every now and then I’d check behind, but could see no sign of any following torches.

This was now well into the second night of the race, and my head was beginning to wander a little. At the same time the excitement of actually being in the lead of a UTMB race was very much keeping me going. This was an unbelievable position to be in. I would never have anticipated finding myself in this position, so I was determined to hang on to it!

After what seemed like at least half an hour of steep climbing up the centre of the wadi canyon the track went a little to the right onto less steep ground. This was more like a conventional train. My mind was now making up terminology, as often happens when I’m running with the effects of sleep deprivation. I was calling this a “google” trail (for no explainable reason) in my head. This trail zig-zagged on up the mountain, but was now shallow enough that I could fast march it.

On one of the zig zags I looked back down and could see that a car had driven up a road that ended on the edge of the canyon and a few locals were now out of the car close to where the trail passed. I assumed they were there to cheer Hamdan on, and so I was now listening out for any cheering or shouting from below.

The trail flattened out a little more, enough that I was able to start running again. Although it took a lot of concentration to keep the running effort going. About 5 minutes into this running I could see the lights from the spectators below. It was only a quick glance but I reckoned there were at least 4  or 5 lights, so Hamdan and his gang might have been there too. I assumed the worst, and estimated he would have been 20 minutes or so behind.

The flat section topped out at a col, where to my dismay I could see there was a steep drop down into a valley followed by a corresponding climb out on the other side. I checked the time on my watch so that if I caught sight of Hamdan’s torch here I would be able to work out the time gap. I ploughed on, and about 15 minutes later was up out of the valley without having seen a sign of Hamdan’s torch.

The trail flattened out again and I could see a light ahead indicating some sort of building. This could be the next aid station. 5 minutes later I popped out onto a road where the cluster of buildings were located, but there was no sign of any aid station. More work to do. The route headed on down the road, which was a shallow descent. I knew that Hamdan had good potential leg speed, so I had to maximise my speed on this section, so ran on as fast as was reasonable at this stage. There was another big cluster of buildings about a kilometer away, which could be another potential aid station location.

After another few minutes of steady road running (as steady as it gets this late in a race), I could see that there was indeed an aid station on the roadside near the end of the buildings. I arrived into “The view” checkpoint, and had my usual quick drink and refill routine. No sign of anyone following. As usual I was out again within a minute or two, feeling slightly guilty not to be spending longer talking with the helpers. But there was a race to be won, and I wasn’t going to hang about.

Mentally I was now on the home stretch. I knew the big climbs were behind me, and also that I would join up with the 135km course before the next aid station. I still had no idea how close Hamdan was though, so I didn’t want to relax. The route started off with a continuation of the road, only a bit steeper than coming into the aid station. Again I kept the hammer down and thought of how fast Hamdan could potentially be chasing me on this section.

I was quite glad that the route left the road after a kilometer or two. It was now a technical descending trail. The speed was lower, but it was more enjoyable. When I looked up I could see head torches in the distance of runners on shorter courses. However, it was very hard to judge how far away they were (I definitely thought they were a lot closer than they were in reality). At this point my knowledge of the 135km course was working against me, as I kept looking for features I would recognise. However it was still far too early for that.

The trail flattened out, then started climbing again, and looping back on itself. Looking back where I had come from I couldn’t see any sign of following head torches. The trail continued its slow climb and re-looped back towards the finish direction. I was still making sure to run the gentle inclines.

The trail from here did a lot of undulations, sometimes dropping into small canyons where I’d be reduced to walking pace on the sharp pull up back out. Mostly though it was steady running on a nice track. I could still see head torches from shorter races in the distance, although they didn’t really seem to be getting any closer. This pattern went on for what seemed like an hour or so!

Finally there was a long steep and steady drop into a big canyon. This must be the old banana plantation canyon I remembered from last year. Finally I’d be joining up with the 135km course. After 5 minutes or so of careful descending I hit the valley floor ready to turn right and head through the canyon. Except the markers weren’t leading me right at all. They were bringing me left over to the other side of the canyon. Gaaaahhh… I’d been over enthusiastic again. This wasn’t the 135km course yet. So another 5 minutes of climbing followed, taking me back out of this canyon. A quick check, and I still couldn’t see any following torches, thankfully.

Topping out of the canyon the trail led onto a road through a village. I was still anticipating being too far forward on the course, as I was hoping I was just above the Banana plantations. But no, the road led out from the village, and carried on as a dirt track road for another kilometer or two. Since the earlier canyon I had lost all signs of the 135km runner’s head torches ahead, so was I was now back to trying to identify features I recognised from last year.

The route left the dirt road and started steeply descending on singletrack technical trail. This looked like a long descent. It became very steep and zig-zaggy. I was being careful to concentrate on every foot placement and not fall, whilst still keeping a (slow) running pace. This was taking a lot of mental energy, as the descent seemed to go on and on.

Finally the descent started to ease off, and I was able to concentrate on running at a higher pace. I passed two people walking on the trail and we exchanged greetings. They weren’t racers. It had been a long time since I’d passed tourist walkers on the route. After all the looking out for the merge into the 135km course I had managed to go past it without even realising it. I was now running the relatively flat section through the canyon with the beautiful banana plantation to my left.

After 5 minutes of this I managed to lose track of the trail markers near where the trail crossed an irrigation channel. I got myself dis-oriented enough that I stopped to take out my phone to use its GPS mapping functionality to relocate the trail. That took so long that the 2 walkers caught back up with me just as I figured out where I was going (After briefly running back up the trail in reverse). As they did, I could see 3 head torches approaching about 2 or 3 hundred meters back up the track. The thought of Hamdan and his entourage catching me immediately flashed into my head, so I flew off down the trail (in the right direction) at the fastest pace I could sustain.

Now I was recognising the trail from last year! I knew where I was now. I was nearly through the canyon. The trail then runs up to a build, and through a gap, emerging to run through the irrigation channels of the plantation. By now I had calmed down a bit, having thought through a little bit and realising that it was highly likely that the two following head torches were 135km runners. I still wanted to keep the pace as High as possible though.

Through village with Dates

Running through the Banana plantation.

I passed by a camera crew, who asked was I doing the 135km. I let them know I was in the 170km, and they shouted encouragement after me. I had a very precise memory of the route from here to the next aid station, which was now only about 5 or 10 minutes away. I kept the pace up, briefly walking when climbing out of the plantation up to the roads in the village of Misfat. A few minutes later I had run through to the other side of the village to reach the last aid station at Misfat.

Here I just grabbed a quick coke, checked and saw that there was no sign of anyone at all following (135km or otherwise), and confirmed the route out. Last year we had been told that it was straight down to the finish, but in reality the route wound around the hill taking quite a convoluted route down. I checked my watch to see that it was nearly one in the morning…. Bloody hell, this route was running a lot longer in reality than it looked on paper. I presumed that Helen was long finished her race, and would have had to wait ages to see me finish. So she probably would have done the sensible thing and got the bus back to the hotel for some well earned sleep.

This year though things looked a little more straightforward. I soon realised that the winding meanders has been cut out and that the route really was going straight to Al Hamra, where the finish is located. That was a big mental relief. Realising that I was even closer to the finish than anticipated, and knowing that there I hadn’t seen anyone following I relaxed a little and ran down the trail at a more relaxed cruising speed.

From just after the last aid station the sound of Eoin Flynn, the race announcer, could be heard drifting up from the PA system. It’s great to hear an Irish accent in these circumstances! The lights of the town were visibly closer much more rapidly than had been the case last year. Now I was starting to get excited again. I was really going to do this! Time to start embracing the fact that I was going to actually win the UTMB Oman… man this was unreal.

Popping off the end of the trail brought an end to descenting. About 5 minutes of dirt road running on the outskirts of Al Hamra took me into the atual roads of the town. One or two turns later I could see the Fort in front of me where I knew the finish line was located. Approaching the entrance to the fort two 135km runners were about to head in. They saw me coming, and very graciously stopped to let me pass so I would have the finish line to myself.

Coming up to the finish line was an amazing feeling, made all the better by having Eoin calling out my approach. I summoned my reserves to do my best leap through the finish line, and win the race….. Yaaaaahooooooo!

UTMB Oman Finish

Jumping through the Finish Line

As it turned out, Helen had stayed around and was there to see me finish, which made it even better again. Two local we had made friends with at the race last year were also at the finish. It was great to see Ray and Lena again, and was a nice surprise to be greeted by them here (Lena took the fantastic finish line pictures, and Ray wrote the great race coverage in the Oman Observer).

Finish 2

Happy to have won!

I had a nice chat with Eoin, who was genuinely delighted that a fellow Irishman had won the race, and a few more interviews and photographs for the media. There were a surprising number of spectators around, given it was 1am, and there were a few selfies taken there. Their enthusiasm was great. Helen and Ray ushered my away so I could sit down and collapse!

I was still thinking that Hamdan would be arriving in another 20 minutes or so, but after half an hour there was still no sign of him. So after getting some food, and getting my cuts and grazes cleaned up by the medical staff (It looked much worse than it felt), Helen and myself took the offer of a lift back to our hotel where I finally could crash out and sleep.

I should have retired on the spot, as that result will be very hard to beat, considering I’m not getting any younger. But that would be sensible and logical. The kind of that generally doesn’t get someone to run 170km with 10,000 meters of climbing in the desert in the first place, in a time of a little over 36 hours non-stop racing.

Looking back now I can see that I had been underestimating the time gap I built once I hit the front of the race. I had managed to build a massive 44 minute lead by Sama Resort, which is way more than I felt possible. Either Hamdan recovered, or the technical descent equalised things, as by Riywagh that had only opened up by another 10 minutes or so to 55 minutes. By the view the gap had become a chasm and I was a full one hour and 40 minutes ahead. I’m glad I didn’t know that then! In the end the final gap was 2 hours and 51 minutes, which even for a race this long was a huge margin. Interestingly, the 3rd and 4th placed finishers were both female. They had clearly run well placed races to come through the faster starting males.

As it turns out the next edition of the race will have 50km, 100km, and 150km distances. So it looks like my time for the 170km race could be locked in as the record forever! The long distance of this race, and the fact that runs so much longer and harder than similarly distanced events really suits me. My multi-day experience was a significant advantage I had over my competitors. So I’m glad I got to race this year when circumstances definitely suited me! It made for a definite career highlight!


Thanks as ever go out to Helen for joining me on this great adventure (And congratulations also to Helen for finishing the 50km race). Thanks also to Ray and Lena for giving us a fantastic insider’s guide to the sights of Nizwa and it’s surrounds.

Helen at Finish

Helen soon after finishing the 50km race

Thanks to Columbia for providing me with such great gear which was perfectly suited to the running environment of this race. The new Montrail FKT shoes I wore were perfect for the rocky trails, and stood up well to a huge amount of abuse. The big star though was the Montrail Omni-Shade T-shirt with it’s sun-reflective outer layer. I really noticed the difference this made to staying cool in the heat of the day.

Thanks also to Richard Donovan from Global Running Adventures for everything he does for me, and for the ultra running community in general. Thanks also to the Great Outdoors shop in Dublin for helping me with other key pieces of gear like my Leki walking poles, and my Led Lenser MH10 headtorch, which both worked with aplomb!


Posted in gear review, Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 1 Comment

UTMB Oman 2019 : Part 1

I was enjoying the craic with the Irish gang here for the various races at UTMB Oman when I looked down at my watch… less than 10 minutes to the start… uh oh, better get going!

Before start with Irish

The Irish gang with UTMB royalty! L->R : Michael J Kelly (135km), Catherine Poletti, Founder and Race Organiser of the UTMB, Helen Dixon (50km), my wife!, Tony Burke (135km), Brian Hutchinson (135km), Eoin Keith (170km)

We were in the shade of the entrance of the old fort in Birkat Al Mouz, Time to step into the full power of the a-little-past-midday sun. Eoin Flynn, Irish international Mountain runner, and race announcer, was encouraging everyone into the the start enclosure. I said my goodbyes to Helen, and made my over, through the chip-check gap. I walked up to the front and stood in the shadow of the start line arch.

before start with Brits

Having the craic whilst sheltering from the sun before the start.

Our race numbers had been allocated in descending order of our ITRA points. I was number 3. I was having a look to see if I could see any of the other low numbered race bibs. I spotted number 2 nearby. That was Alfie Pearce-Higgins. He had been 5th in last years race so I reckoned he was a definite race favourite. So I went over and introduced myself, and we had a quick chat. He had only flown in from south east asia that morning. Yikes, that wasn’t making things easy.

Michel Poletti wandered up, and I wished him well, commenting that not many here had their wife as the race starter (Catherine was 50 meters ahead literally holding the starting gun, a rifle by the look of it).

With about 1 minute to go it dawned on me that I wasn’t wearing my desert hat, and that I really should be. So I did a quick shuffle of getting my backpack off, hat out and on my head, and backpack back on and correctly adjusted.

We were counted down, and with a gunshot we were off. Similarly to last year there was a stampede out, with quite a few runners heading off like they were in an 800 meter race.I lurched myself slowly into action, building up to my steady place. Going off too fast today would be double jeopardy. We had 170km with 10,000m of climbing to go, and it was hot and sunny.


And they’re off!

The race started with a loop out and back through the Birkat village, and the banana and date plantations of the village. I was back a bit from the speeding front runners, just a little behind Alfie.It was nice to be able to see everything clearly, unlike last year’s nighttime start. Having said that, I was mainly paying attention to the runners in view.

The return leg of the loop took us past more interesting features, including the irrigation channels for the plantations. One small sharp bump of a mini-hill saw me overtake a few people. We then descended to head out past the startline area. Here I saw firstly the race director, a fellow Irishman, who I shouted at that he’d better be rooting for me as the only Irishman in the race! I then saw Helen and gave her a wave.

Then we turned and headed for the mountains. Very soon we were off road and running on a rough 4WD track along the dry river bed of the wadi. This snaked its way left and right tracking a valley between the ever higher hills and cliffs on either side. I was most definitely running my own pace here, happy to let the frontrunners disappear steadily away into the distance. I could feel the heat, but it wasn’t oppressive. My clothes were doing their job of keeping the intensity of the sun off me (I was wearing a Columbia Omni-Shade t-shirt which has an outer sun-reflective layer).

After 15 minutes or so running on this track things had settled down a bit. I reckoned I could see about 7 or 8 runners ahead of me, with 2 almost out of sight, and the rest clustered about one hundred meters ahead. I wasn’t sure I had everyone accounted for, though. Every now and then we would pass by families out camping near the track. There was a proper sealed road nearby, so access was probably easy enough. So far more frequent cheering and waving than expected.


The 170km Course Route

About 10km we came to the first aid station, which broke up the settled pattern a bit. A few of the runners ahead went into the aid station, whereas the runner immediately in front of me and myself ran straight past without stopping. Looking at the timing leaderboard shows that in reality I passed here in 8th position, after a bit over an hour’s running, already about 10 minutes behind the 2 Omani leaders. I had indeed lost track of 3 runners way ahead at this point.

Another 5 or so minutes running on the 4WD track took us past a small village until we finally reached one of my favourite sections and left the track behind to head up the trail through the Wadi. The really nice thing about this Wadi is that it isn’t dry… the river is still running through it.

Race-wise, things became more chaotic straight away. We now had to open our eyes to look for the green painted dots which marked the track through the maze of boulders in the early section of the wadi canyon. A few runners seem to lose speed completely once they came off the relatively flat track section. So there was a bit of passing backwards and forwards, especially as we occasionally lost and found the intended route, or someone headed on a slightly different line.

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

Over time though I started overtaking one or two people, especially as the track (which was now mostly singletrack) became steeper, including the occasional diving descent along with the general climb. Thankfully, being in a fairly steep sided canyon we were no longer in direct sunshine, which definitely helped. I took off my hat and clipped it into my mini-carabiner alongside my cup (mandatory race gear). So even though it was a climb, conditions were actually more comfortable. Nice and warm without being oppressively hot.

This was a real adventure running section. Lots of crossing back and forth over the stream/river, climbing above the wadi floor at times to get around obstacles. It was good in the dark in the 135km course last year, and even better being able to see everything this year in daylight.

As the valley widened again I knew we were coming up towards the section aid station. At this point myself and another runner caught up with Alfie, and we said hello. The group of 3 ran into the aid station at Masirat together. The others pulled up and start refilling with water etc. I just grabbed a handful of dates and headed on off immediately.

It was back on dirt track road again now, but steeply upwards. I knew from last year that this was a steep sustained zig-zag climb. I ran 90% of it last year. This year I decided to preserve myself more since I was in a longer race, so set off fast marching up the hill, trying my best to use my poles nordic style. On the longer straights I could see that there was a runner ahead a couple of hundred meters. After another turn or two I could see that there were two more runners ahead of him. At one point I could see one more runner further ahead again.

My fast march, with the occasional trot on less steep sections was enough to slowly close down the runners ahead. I was able to look back and see that I had opened a gap of two hundred meters or so on Alfie, and there was no real sign of anyone in visible range after that. Keeping things steady was enough to get comfortably up the hill. On the last straight to the top of this climb I caught and passed the first of the runners ahead, who was Francis Marielle, a Frecnh runner (number 8) who Catherine Poletti had introduced me to as we were waiting for the race start. So I wished him a “bon Jour”!

A short steep downhill road section took us into the village of Sallut, and the next aid station. I arrived at the station just as the two runners ahead were leaving. The timing for this aid station shows me getting checked in in 6th position. I was completely unaware of the two lead Omani runners, who by this point were nearly 25 minutes in front (I was here a little over 3 hours).

The two runners exiting were both French as well (numbers 5 and 6). Francis exited just behind them and just in front of me. I happily settled in behind the train of 3 Frenchmen for the nice off-road trail climb out of Sallut. By now we were getting pretty high and the views were starting to become spectacular. I was only looking around occasionally though. Mainly I was just concentrating on climbing steadily, using the nice pace being set by the 3 just in front. I could hear Alfie down below a little, also working steadily up the climb.

As we topped out from this climb the 3 French runners pulled ahead of me a bit as the ground turned flatter. I could also sense that Alfie had closed right up behind. A few sharp zig zags verified that. We popped out onto the top and ran along a fairly flat trail section for a few hundred meters. By now Alfie was right behind me. I offered to let him pass, but he was happy with the pace.

We popped out onto a road, having lost sight of the French. Within a few seconds I realised that there were no markers here. Uh oh. I stopped and said this to Alfie. He quickly got out his phone (for the GPS), and verified that the trail was a bit below us. So we backtracked back off the road where we popped on. Within about 30 seconds I spotted a green dot in the direction that Alfie reckoned the path should be. We dropped down onto it and carried on following the markers, with Alfie in front. We had only lost a minute or two at most, which wasn’t too bad. However there was no sign of the French trio ahead now.

Alfie and myself settled into a pattern of running one behind the other, chatting away with the occasional piece of conversation. We headed down into a small valley, around a water reservoir, and then finally worked up onto the open plain. That effectively was the first big climb out of the way. Overall I reckoned I had taken it at an easier pace than last year, and was feeling fresher at this point.

There was a small water aid station next. I made a rapid stop here, just refilling the water bottle that I had now emptied of the fruit juice I had started with (the second one was still full, and I was hoping to have a nice supply of juice all the way to the first “life base” at Alila, where I would be able to resupply from my dropbag). I set off before Alfie, but it didn’t take long for him to rejoin me and we resumed our chat.

Somewhere on course

Somewhere out on the course!

The light was slowly starting to fade now. It was nice having the views to this point, and being able to properly see everything this year which I wasn’t able to see last year due to the later start time. I was hoping we’d make it to the next aid station without needing torches.

Alfie caught sight of the French runners ahead. They were a few hundred meters in front. The twist and turns, combined with small hillocks meant that they were very rarely in view. At this point I wasn’t really paying any attention to runners behind. I would be counting this race as being “early days yet” until we reached the trail split where the 170lm course diverged. Very unusually we also passed a “tourist” walker on the trail as well.

I was remembering last years course very well indeed, so nothing was coming as much of a surprise on the course, and I had a fairly good idea of where we were in relation to aid stations, and the mental map of the course in my head. Another short but steep drop into a small valley led us to a steep stepped climb up to the next aid station at Wadi Bani Habib. Alfie and myself made our way up, through some media with shouts of encouragement from supporters and aid station staff.

We arrived to find the French runners still here, still consuming items at the aid station. I grabbed a bit of fruit, and took a cup of coke. Whilst consuming this I took off my backpack and extracted my good headtorch (a Led Lenser MH10). It was nearly at the point where it would be needed. The French runners left as I was doing this. I asked one of the cameramen there what position I was in. He reckoned 7th or 8th. I had definitely lost track of some runners ahead (Looking back I can see there were two Omani runners ahead of the French gang, and an Egyptian roughly with them).

With a quick stop I was off after the French runners pretty quickly. Again Alfie took a little longer, but wasn’t too long before catching up. The first kilometer or so after the aid station is really interesting running. Down into what appears to be a wadi bed. There I finally conceded to myself that it was time to fire up the headtorch. Navigation actually became easier as a result. The little green reflectors that indicate the route now lit up under the head torch beam, making the path relatively easy to find. From there it was then up through and around the buildings of an old abandoned village. There was some spectators and media around encouraging us through this section.

From there it was on onto more undulating landscape. We would see the pools of head torch light beams lighting up the ground in front of the groups of runners a few hundred meters ahead when we got a longer view. We weren’t explicitly chasing them down (as far as I was concerned it was way too early to be actively racing), but it definitely proved motivation to keep a good steady pace.

A kilometer or two later we came off the singletrack trail onto a bit of a dirt road section. This section was burned into my memory from last year, as I had missed a turn here, and dragged two more runners chasing after me in my wake, all the while doing a long off course climb up the road, before realising our mistake and backtracking to the course. That probably lost us about half an hour or so.

Alfie was running ahead and he made exactly the same mistake. I immediately called him back and led him onto the correct left turn off the dirt track road climb and onto a flatter singletrack trail, telling him the story of my “exploits” here last year. The track does a gentle decent for a few hundred meters before starting a longer climb. On the descent I made a mental note that I couldn’t see runners ahead. Once on the climb, which did some zig-zagging, I looked back to see a bunch of head torches a few hundred meters back. I looked like the French gang had made the same navigation mistake, but corrected themselves to end up behind us. So it looked like we’d gained at least 3 places pretty easily.

The track eventually end up on sold road climb, which kept up a slow running pace on. One of the chasers appeared to be making a much more determined effort to catch us back, running way ahead of the group behind. The road climb peaked out and descended for a little bit. The next aid station was now visible below and a little off to the right. I managed to run past the turn off the road onto the track to the aid station, but Alfie quickly called me back, so we arrived there pretty much together.

The usual pattern repeated itself, with a minimal stop from me and slightly longer one from Alfie, but we were back working together within a few seconds heading away. The first few hundred meters has some enjoyable technical running up and down through tricky ground. In the middle of this we rapidly caught up with another runner, who turned out to be an Omani runner. We all said hello, and he stuck with us for as long as we could. As the ground became flatter Alfie set a very good pace along the nice technical trail, and we eased away from the newly overtaken local runner. This was still very early days, so if he was fading off now he definitely had a long term issue!

Every now and again I’d look out over the landscape, but it was hard to pick out features. There wasn’t a lot of light bouncing around so unfortunately it was hard to get any of the benefits of what was undoubtedly a majestic landscape. I’d had the same issue with this section last year, so unfortunately I still feel like I have unfinished business in these sections. The upside is the skies were amazing, with great stars, and even a clarity to the sliver of a moon crescent that I wouldn’t generally see in the more light polluted skies near Dublin.

After a while we popped onto another dirt track section. At first this was a long steep descent, which I lead out at a very controlled pace, not wanting to hammer my muscles with a fast descent. I did make one brief stop and backtrack to double check that we were still on course following race markers… which we were! After that we had the payback climb back up again. The road did a few twists and turns, which allowed me to look back and see 3 or 4 sets of head torches following us heading down the descent.

A mix off dirt track and off road single track brought us in to the next aid station at Kahf Al Hamir. I grabbed a few bits of fruit and another cup of coke. I checked with the aid station staff what position we were in, and we were second, with one runner about half an Omani runner about half an hour ahead, they reckoned. That’s a big gap!

(Looking back at the tracking through this station it looks like they were accurate enough with their estimate. The Egyptian runner had fallen right back behind. I’m guessing he may also have made a navigation mistake and fallen way behind as a result. The overtaken Omani runner was still next behind, about 3 minutes back, with the French gang only a minute behind him). There had been a change to the course around here from last year. I reckoned it had been shortened a little bit, skipping a small near-loop.

Again I set off a little ahead of Alfie, and again he caught up a few minutes later. This section of trail quickly became very technical indeed. As I turned to head down a sharp steep descent into a canyon I could see Alfie’s torch nearby, and one other again a bit behind him. After climbing to the other side of the small canyon there were soon plenty of red dots marking the left border of the trail. The red dots indicated danger. There was probably a spectacular canyon drop to the right, but all I could see was blackness. Anyway, I was mainly concentrating on running at a steady efficient speed without tripping up on the technical ground and breaking myself!

This entire section was interesting single track trail all the way. It seemed to move from running along a canyon edge, crossing a big plain, and then heading for a mountain. There were again a few turns along the way where I could catch a glance back and see a group of headtorches behind us. I was guesstimating that they were about 5 minutes or so behind us. It was still too early to be actively racing, but I still had a definite preference to keep overtaken runners behind nonetheless.

My memory of this section was very good, so I knew that when we hit the mountain we would be changing pace to a walk, as it is quite a steep climb up, with plenty of zig-zagging. Again I felt as if I was in better condition than at the same point last year. The only drawback was that I had managed to get a stone in my shoe, and had been there for about an hour or so. I had managed to manipulate around in my shoe without stopping so that it wasn’t causing any bother. However on this climb it was becoming annoying, and a potential source of big trouble. I also knew there was an aid station at the top of the climb, so decided I would use that stop to empty my shoe.

Sure enough, my memory was accurate, and we topped out to soon hit the aid station at Aqbat Biyut. I did refilled my water bottle and did a quick shoe emptying. I was still conscious not to waste time standing around, so was still out quickly enough, with Alfie a little behind and soon catching back up. There was no sign of the runners behind us as we left, so hopefully we weren’t leaving them any visual encouragement to chase us down.

From here the trail undulates for a while, and then turns right to head in the general direction of the Alila Hotel, where the first life base is located. Plenty of work to be done before getting there though. After the arcing turn the trail starts to head downhill gently at first. The view (or what could be seen in the darkness) opens up ahead. Off to the right in the distance there were bright lights illuminating the paved roads heading to the Alila. But straight ahead there was a big nothingness, as we were heading down into a big canyon.

The trail quickly became very steep, and as is par for the course for this race was nicely technical as well. I was setting a controlled pace, keeping up ass much speed as I could but with the emphasis firmly on not making a mistake. A fall here could really hurt a lot. The descent seems to go on and on and on. I was enjoying it, and getting into the groove of it quite well. The only drawback being I knew that I would soon have to pay back all this altitude loss.

Near the floor of the valley the descent reached its steepest sections, which made me briefly glad I was going in this direction. I remembered from last year that there were two points that were easy to get the navigation wrong. Again my memory was spot-on and we didn’t lose a second working our way through the mazy boulders in the valley floor and starting the climb back out. Last year I had caught two American runners here who had gotten confused about where the path out was. There was no sign of anyone to be caught this year!

More steep trails led up and away from here. I set up my walking sticks with my hands fully looped through, as I knew it was a very long very intense climb up from here. After about 5 minutes there is a little relief as the trail flattens out for a few hundred meters. I caught sight of head torches coming down the hill behind us with a brief glance back.

The flatter section soon turned back into a steep climb. I was feeling much much better here than I had been last year, and was moving uphill at a nice steady marching pace, using the poles as effectively as I could. I became aware that I was starting to open a small gap on Alfie. This wasn’t something I was deliberately trying to do at this time, but just seemed to happen as a consequence of my climbing speed here.

High above, I could see the bright lights illuminating the road above this canyon. I knew that it was a long climb ahead to reach that height. After a few more steep zig-zags I could see that Alfie was now about 100 meters behind below me. I could also see another head torch not that far behind climbing up the hill behind us. To me it looked like he was closing down on Alfie. The trail then straightened out into a more direct climb, so I didn’t get a glance back so often.

I still kept the pace well controlled. As the climb started a big ramp-up in steepness as it headed towards the road above I was very careful not to press too hard, and to keep my energy expenditure well down. Eventually I popped out at the end of the long steep climb onto a wide dirt road. Even though it was a big effort, it definitely wasn’t as exhausting as last year had been. The road was still climbing, but far less steeply. This is where I was able to reap the immediate benefit of controlled pacing by breaking into a slow run up the hill.

I reckoned if I could keep the run going, it was possible that I would be able to open up a gap on the closing runners behind. The dirt road then popped out onto a tarmac road, illuminated by bright street lights. There was a village in the valley nearby. Some of what I presume were the locals were standing at this junction. They cheered me on, and I waved my thanks to them. Even though the surface was now easy, it was becoming steeper, so I reverted to a fast march.

This eased off after a few minutes, as the road turned and as a result I was able to run into the next aid station at Al Hilaylat. For the first time I was running into an aid station solo. I grabbed a coke, along with a few bits of fruit, and made sure to make my usual quick exit. Before leaving I checked my position. They confirmed I was in second, about half an hour behind the Omani leader. He was certainly setting a fast pace ahead!

(Checking back on the leaderboard for this checkpoint I can see that I had opened a 4 minute gap on Alfie, who in turn was holding a 5 minute gap on two chasing French runners. Hamden, the Omani runner was over 30 minutes in front).

At this point my aims for the race had undergone a bit of a transformation. I was still targeting an age group podium. In reality I was now very much targeting the overall podium. I was also hoping that I would “ratchet” my way through the field. In order words that once I overtook someone that they would stay overtaken. Which meant I was now targeting finishing second, with a hope that I might get a shot at winning. We were still well short of the halfway mark at this point.

One major thing I had noted to myself looking up the top ranked runners in this race was that  none of them seemed to have any multi-day experience. Most maxed out at UTMB type duractions. I was reckoning, based on last year’s time, and the amount of extra distance and climb, that this race would take a minimum of 30 hours, even being optimistic. That put beyond their previous racing experience, but well within mine. I was hoping this would pay off over the long term as the race progressed into the depths of the 170km course.

The trail climbed up a relatively short hill leading away from the aid station. I checked back climbing up this, but couldn’t see any sign of anyone emerging from the aid station. It was around here that the sun started to rise in last year’s race. It was still firmly nighttime here this year though.

A shallow descent made for fast running for a few minutes, almost leading back to the road. Just before the road the trail takes an acute left turn, and heads more directly for the Alila. A quick glance up left, and still no sign of following torches. I started to get a little twinge of crampiness continuing down the relatively fast shallow descent from here, so stopped and took a Renee tablet to hopefully knock that on the head. Another glance back before starting off again, and this time I could see one torch behind.

I slowly accelerated up to a good cruising speed. The trail here was narrow single track on the side of a small canyon, but with good concentration, it was possible to make good speed, and was definitely enjoyable terrain to run. More fun followed, with a descent into a corner, crossing a small river, and then a shallow climb up to a nice runnable section of trail across a rare piece of flat ground.

This trail popped me out onto a road a little faster than I was expecting from memory… I was definitely running relatively well compared to last year. This is the start of a long loop around back to roughly this point. A quick downhill take me to a junction, where two marshals point me to turn left on an immaculate tarmac road. I know from memory that this road takes me to the next aid station.

I set a steady pace, but being careful not to hammer my muscles too hard. After a few minutes a right turn on the road starts a long descent into a big canyon. Another few minutes later I was snapped into alertness by two large animals running across the road about 50 meters in front of me at some speed. I had obviously startled them. Unfortunately my headtorch wasn’t strong enough to get a good look at them. These were definitely not domestic or farm animals! In retrospect I reckon they were Arabian Tahrs, or possibly even Ibex.

A few steep descending curves brought me into the aid station, where I grabbed a quick refill for my water bottle and quickly got back on my way. 50 meters later it was back off the roads and onto single track path again. Having done this section in daylight last year I had a good idea of what was coming. Various degrees of technical running all the way to the Alila. More fun.

The trail drift off to the north side of a growing canyon, with the path clinging to the side. Overall it is broadly gently downhill, but feels pretty undulating. With no sign of any other head torches it felt like I had the canyon to myself. I was mainly concentrating on keeping up a solid speed, and keeping running through the minor ups in the undulations.

After what seemed like about half an hour or so the path turns left and makes a long technical zig-zagged dive for the valley floor. I did my best to “dance” my way down. About three quarters of the way down the path winds through an old abandoned village, around and through some of the old stone walls of the houses. After all the descending it’s a bit of a relief to finally arrive into the river bed in the floor of the canyon.

There was still plenty of pooled water around the river bed (there had been lots of rain in Oman in the weeks preceding the race). The trail now works it’s way broadly upstream. There are lots of big impassable boulders in the valley floor, so the marked trail takes lots of interesting routes over and around these.

After what seemed like another 15 minutes or so the trail then start to turn right and begin the big climb all the way up to the Alila. This climb starts pretty steeply, and stays that way for most of the climb. There were plenty of “hands required” scrambling sections along the way. As I gained altitude I could see across the valley to the trail I had run in on, where I caught sight of an occasional head torch working its way along. About three quarters of the way up I caught sight of a head torch below. It was hard to estimate the gap, but it had definitely grown rather than shrunk since I last saw my immediate pursuer.

Nearing the top the trail starts to steepen back up as the looming cliffs get nearer. Then, right at the cliffs I came across the race staff manning the via ferrata section. There are fixed steel cables here to help get people through the steep exposed parts of the trail here. It is mandatory for all racers to use the provided via ferrata safety gear provided here.

I was greeted by the ropes supervisor here. I recognised the accent and asked him where he was from. “Ireland”. “So am I, which part”. Small world! He was from Donegal (Hi Chris!). We got the harness and helmet onto me. I let him know I used to be a mountaineer, so I knew how to use the gear, and with that off I went.

I’d be happy enough to do this section without safety gear (it would be much faster), but totally understood why were mandated to use it. I still tried to make as much speed as possible, running the carabiners along the cables as fast as I could, being ready the alternate then as quickly as possible with each cable bolt to be passed. I definitely moved faster than last year.

The cables ended at the top of the cliffs, where another supervisor helped get the harness off. From there it was a short pop up to a style over a fence, and then about three hundred meters flat running through the grounds of the Alila and into the room being used as an aid station. Catherine Poletti (UTMB Organiser) was here, and we exchanged greetings on the way in. Her husband was also running the race, and external assistance was allowed at this aid station (Helen had been here last year).

Alila View

The View from the Alila into the canyon in daytime

This was the first “life base” where we had access to one of our drop bags. As usual my target here was to get in and out in minimum time. I had a few tasks to do. There were lots of people here offering to help with anything. I made a deliberate decision to not sit down, so as to not get too static, and be ready to go ASAP. I got a class of the nice fruit juice that the Alila had provided on ice. Whilst drinking that I refilled my own water bottles with fruit juice from my drop bag. I also did a head torch battery swap with a battery from my drop bag to maximise my battery power for the rest of the night, if needed (this was more a “just in case”).

In the middle of all this a runner emerged from another room, got his stuff together, and headed out the door to cheers and applause. That was Hamdan Al Khatri, the Omani runner who had been half an hour at least in front of me. So I was going to make up a stack of easy time on him, as I was nearly ready to go. I grabbed a quick glass of milk, and got my back-pack back on, then headed out the door myself. I reckoned I was departing the only 3 or 4 minutes behind Hamdan. Game on…!

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UTMB Oman 2019 – Preview

My last big race of 2019 takes me back to UTMB Oman, but with a twist. I ran the first edition of this race last year. That was a big leap in dark, a new race in a country I had never visited. It turned out to be a wonderful experience all round.

The UTMB Oman takes place in the “green mountain” (Jebel Al Akhdar,) of Oman, near the city of Nizwa. It’s far from the obvious experience of the Arabian peninsula. No sand gaiters are required. In 2018 the course covered 135km of trail, a very large percentage of which was challenging technical running. I loved it. The weather was either perfect, or hot but not too hot. The views were great. The Omanis were great hosts. I had a good race, managing to finish 8th overall, and first in my new over 50s age class.

UTMB Oman Trail

So when registration opened this year I jumped right in. I had a choice to make though. This year two new courses had been added. A shorter 50km, and a longer 170km which takes in the highest mountain on the Arabian  peninsula. Naturally I took the opportunity to sign up to the new long course.

Last year Helen came out to join me in Oman, and was able to provide some useful support out on the race. She is also taking advantage of the new options this year and will be racing in the 50km event. She’ll get the chance to enjoy some of the great trails and views, hopefully.

It took me over 25 hours to finish the 130km race last year, which is a good indication of how tough and technical this race is. The 170km adds a considerable amount of extra climb as well as distance, so is likely to take me more than 30 hours to complete. The total climb is over 10,000m. The race profile gives a good idea of what lies ahead :

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

UTMB Oman 170KM Profile

My 170km race start on Thursday 28th of November at 1:00pm local time. It has UTMB style “tracking” available at the livetrail site. This means that runners will be tracked at each aid station. The tracking website is here.

This race is very much a art of my project to get on the podium for my M2 (50+) age group for every UTMB race in 2019 (so far so good!). So that is my big aim going into this race. Since there are 3 races this year the field is a bit more split. Race bibs have been handed out in order of ITRA points ranking. I’ve ended up being assigned bib number 3…. uh oh! There are a few other obvious podium competitors on the list.

Alfred Pearce-Higgins is bib number 2, and was 5th in last years race. So he looks like a strong experienced contender for the win (He also writes interesting articles on ultra running for the Telegraph occasionally).

Jay Aldous is an American ultra runner with bib number 4. He is also in my age category, which should ensure plenty of competition there! He has a an excellent track record at some of the bigger American 100 mile races, and has a very good recent 100 mile time on the track of around 16 hours or so.

A Thai runner called Phairat Varasin has the honor of wearing number 1. Looking through his track record he has mostly raced in east Asia, with only an occasional trip outside. He obtained his high ranking from a relatively small number of results, so its hard to tell how he is likely to fare in this race. A whole string of French runners follow on in the 5-8 bib numbers.

I’m very much looking forward to heading back into the mountains of Oman. An earlier start time this year means that even though I’m covering a lot of the same ground as last year there should be a big switch in which sections of that ground I see by day and by night. It’s still going to take a big effort to get around and finish in any kind of reasonable state though. But what a journey awaits!


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Belfast 24 hour 2019, Preview

After some lovely big mountain races to get my season going things take a very sharp turn to flatter world of pure distance running this weekend. The 10th Belfast 24 hour running race, which is the Irish 24 hour running championships will take place in Victoria Park, right at the end of the Belfast City Airport runway! I think I’ve done 6 or 7 of these races, including when it was the world championships in 2017.

2017 turned out to be my best year there. I managed to run a bit over 248km to break my PB by about 4km, and break the Irish record by about 40 meters or so (wafer thin margin). Last year I did around 239km, which is about my 4th best 24 hour distance ever, but such is the incredible standard that we know have in Irish 24 hour running, that was only good enough for second place behind fellow Corkonian Aidan Hogan in the Irish Championships.

Over the years I’ve won the race at least 3 times. The first one or two of those were when it took place on the Mary Peters 400m track, where I set the Irish 24 hour track record of 244.67km. With all those appearances they even made me the “poster boy” for this year’s event.

Energia Poster

You never know what is going to happen in a 24 hour race. It’s a much more mentally tough undertaking than running 24 hours or so over the mountains. The main thing that keeps me motivated for races of this nature is the race itself. And a 24 hour flat looped race is a very pure form of racing. 24 hours is probably the shortest non man-made (And therefore arbitrary in some way) distance.

At this point I don’t even know the full list of entrants. I’d be pretty sure there’ll be a massive Cork battle between Aidan, Alex O’shea and myself. Past winners such as Eddie Gallen and John O’Regan are highly likely to turn up. It’s even possible that the winner of the first event from 10 years ago, Thomas McGuire, whose record I barely scrapped past, could also turn up. All past winners have been invited.

We’ve had a good international runners take part last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more come over to try to get a good distance on a fast course. There are still qualification places available for the world 24 hour running championships taking place in Albi in France this autumn for a few countries. That’s very much the case as far as Ireland is concerned, which will be yet another motivating factor for everyone.

There are no trackers for this race, but there should be some updates on the Energia 24 hour Facebook page, and possible live lap counting (surprisingly addictive) on the myrunresults website. The race starts at midday on Saturday.

It’s impossible to know how your form will hold up after 16 hours or more of continuous running, but I feel in good shape. Training has gone well. I’ve even managed to get in a few short sharp mountain races with the Irish Mountain Running Association. That at least reminded me of the pain of racing! The weather forecast is looking quite good at the moment. But this is still Ireland, so you never know!

This is definitely one of my “A” races this year. An Irish championship is always worth racing for! This is also the last 24 hour race being organised by Ed Smith, who has done so much to bring 24 hour ultrarunning in particular to new levels of strength and depth. Yet more motivation to race well!

I’m really grateful to have Richard Nunan present as my support crew, with a little background help from Taryn as well. The old adventure racing team is still working well together!

One, hopefully good, sleep to go….

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