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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UTMB Uahuaia 2019 – Race Report

I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep the night before the race, given that my alarm was set for 2:30 a.m. But it was enough. The Columbia Argentina crew kindly offered to pick me up from my hotel and drop me to the bus departure point at the race hotel. Even though it was less than a kilometer, given the weather forecast I was happy to avail of the offer. As it turned out it was dry at that point. The short transfer to the start line was all very efficient, and we had about 150 runners ready to go in plenty of time.

A nice small field (relative to the Chamonix UTMB) ensured that it was easy to saunter in to a good position near the front without any fuss or bother. We had the classic UTMB music (1492, by Vangelis) playing over the P.A. system as the start time became imminent. That’s once piece of music I’ve always loved, and its now firmly associated with UTMB for me now. As the music reached its crescendo we had a countdown in Spanish, and then we were off.

It was a nice wide dirt road to start on, so there was no mad panicky jockeying for position. Everyone seemed to be able to head off comfortably at their own pace. The leaders weren’t doing a lunatic pace, but I was still happy to let them away and settle into a nice fast but cruisy pace for the first kilometer or two along the seaside road.

I had decided to wear my Columbia Outdry Down jacket (a magic combination of down jacket with a waterproof out layer) as my midlayer. Given the weather forecast I wanted to have it with me in case conditions turned really nasty, and I realised that the easiest thing to do was simply wear it from the start. The only potential downside was that it might work too well and I could overheat. I was warming up, but it was tolerable. Adjusting zips on the midlayer and shell layer gave me enough control to adjust enough.

The road turned to trail, and then we turned right to head inland and start climbing. Here we go. I had my poles a bit too long and did a quick adjust so that they were just right. Soon I was catching and overtaking people by keeping up a slow run on the climbs when others walked. The trails were nice, snaking their way through the trees, and not too manicured at all.

Ushuai Coastline

The Ushuaia Coastline. The early section of the race followed the coast before heading inland.

We broke out of the forest after a while and were on a long forest road section, which took us through the first aid station where our numbers were scanned for the timing system (the numbers have built-in timing chips). By now my position had basically stabilised with the same runners both just in front and behind me through this section.

I was happy with my speed, being able to keep up a nice fast pace but still very much controlled without any real exertion. We turned into another trail section. This one was much more wild, with a few nice technical sections, and one or two short sharp wall-like climbs.

After this we broke out onto a road section. This section was the substitute for the first big climb which had to be taken out because of the high winds on top. Down in the valleys the wind was much less noticeable, especially when in the forested sections. I settled in for a bit of road running. Its times like this where I’m glad I’m not a pure trail runner, as this section would have driven a pure trail runner bonkers. It turned out to b a very very long drag, mostly a gentle climb. It had also started snowing by now (the bad weather finally making its presence felt).

I overtook one or two runners here, either because they were a bit slower on the road, or because they were getting their waterproof jacket on. On some section of the road it was more noticeably exposed to the wind, and the snow was being driven across us quite hard at these points. The runner who had been just behind on the fireroads very gradually passed me and slowly but surely opened up a gap of about 100 meters. I could feel that there were one or two runner just behind.

After what seemed a very long drag we finally hit the turn off from the road at a small drinks only aid station, along with the standard number scan. A short steep muddy climb took us up to a well used forest road which ran above the road. There was obviously a bit of forestry operations going on, as the road was well churned up. It made picking nice lines without sinking my shoes into deep puddles a nice distracting on-going task.

At one point two runners came back towards us. We had been assured that there would be markers at minimum every 100 meters, and they had run on without seeing one for a while. I knew I had passed one about 100 meters back, but we all decided to head back to confirm it. I was first to turn and carry on along the original track,  as I could see no other obvious options. After about 300 meters we passed another marker.

As we turned around I noticed that one of the runners in our little cluster of 4 or 5 was Rory Bosio (American top class female ultra trail runner and Former UTMB record holder), who I had met and briefly chatted with at the race press conference a day earlier, so we exchanged greetings. I was very happy to be in a group with a runner of her class. After a few short sharp undulation a group of about 3 of us emerged to the front, which included Rory, and we had a nice chat for a while.

Ushuaia UTMB from Plane 2

We were originally to head into the valley on the right by going over the mountains, but had to take the valley between the mountains instead.

The fireroad ended at a road crossing, which was policed for us. We were now back on the original course. The trail on the other side of toad still ran in parallel, but was much rougher and more interesting. Eventually we came to what was obviously a ski piste, so I knew the next aid station was close. Sure enough within a kilometer we turned at a marshaled point for an in-and out trip down to the ski station where a nice warm indoor aid station was set up.

I just grabbed one or two pieces of fruit and did a rapid turn-around to head back out. The other runner from the lead group followed closely behind as we dragged our way back up the piste (which had a light dusting of snow from the current weather) back to the marshal where we turned to carry on down the trail.

This soon brought us out onto another section of road. My running companion came alongside and we chatted about the dogs we had heard howling (it sounded bizarre) a kilometer or two before the aid station (I reckoned they were a farmer’s working dogs). I could tell from his accent that he wasn’t once of the south American runners, so I asked him where he was from, which was Estonia.

A lightbulb lit up in my head and I realised I had met him before out in UTMB Oman. We confirmed that and chatted about that. He was running much more strongly at this point in this race than in Oman. After about 2 kilometers we turned back off the road, thankfully, and up steeply into another trail.

After a few minutes on this trail I reckoned there was enough light in the sky now that I could turn off my headtorch. It was definitely nicer to have some more awareness of the “big picture” surroundings. There was a few spectacular mountains around us, all with a good covering of snow.

The trail was pretty obvious, so we were pretty relaxed, seeing the occasional marker to confirm we were all good. After a while we ran into another runner running towards us, who I recognised as Chico Santos, a top ranked Brazilian runner who I had also met at the press conference. He said he had run on for a kilometer and turned around because he hadn’t seen a marker. So again we turned to retrace our steps to the previous marker, quickly meeting Rory and another runner who joined us.

Leivo, the Estonian runner, had a GPS watch and quickly confirmed that we had missed a turn, but it wasn’t far. Sure enough we came across the turn within a minute or two. Not too much time wasted. The turn took us on to a much wilder track. We had been told at the race briefing that the ground here could have quite a bit of water,and basically described boggy conditions. Sure enough, there were plenty of boggy bits on this track.

This was the most technical section yet, and was a lot of fun, whilst being a lot of hard work. There was a mix of boggy sections through trees, and boggy sections in more open ground, with lots of undulations over what was fundamentally a gentle climb (but in no way seemed like it). After a while Chico’s raw speed started to tell, and as we left the treeline behind he gradually opened up a gap and disappeared off. The other two lads were not too far ahead, with Rory slowly gaining from behind, having stopped to put gloves on.

As we gained altitude the snow cover became deeper, so that it wasn’t long before we were plodding through a completely snow-covered landscape. I was thinking that this probably wasn’t the race that anyone, organisers included, was expecting. But I was enjoying the full on Patagonian experience.

The Argentinian army had volunteered as race helpers, and there was quite a few of them up here. They had laid out a continuous yellow tape roughly following where the path would be. Of course there was no trace of a path at this stage, just snowprints of runners (and army boots) in the snow blanket. Rory passed me on this section and joined up with the 2 lads ahead. I was happy enough to stick to my own pace and let the gap open or close accordingly. There were plenty of false tops over the top of the pass, and it took a while to run over the plateau before we finally reached the descent section.

A little nature break here let the gap open up enough so that they were out of sight and out of mind, and I was running completely solo for the first time in the race (although I wasn’t looking back to see if anyone could be seen behind. It was way too early to worry about battling for positions, especially now that this race had its difficult sections so heavily back-loaded).

At the briefing we were told that this was a new path. It was very technical, and actually quite a lot of fun. Although I was going a bit slower than I would ideally have liked, being careful not to fall, and not to put too much stress on my muscles and knees too early in the race. You could tell the track was new, with a lot recently cut vegetation, and new gaps cut into fallen trees.

I was presuming that the others would be opening a big gap ahead of me, but about two-thirds of the way down this descent section I caught a glimpse of a red jacket ahead, which was Leivo. Of course I used this as motivation to try to close the gap down a bit.

After the nice long technical descent, which burned off most of the height the trail turned into a forest road track. 5 minutes of this later led us onto a dirt road which skirted the edge of a gorgeous small (by local standards… maybe 2km long) lake. There was a small drinks aid station a few hundred meters along this road. /i just had my number scanned but didn’t stop for anything else, so I was now just behind Leivo. About 1 kilometer along the rod I could see the green jacket of Rory up ahead.

Leivo slowly open up the gap again along the lakeside flat section of dirt road. At the end of the lake the road veered up into forest with a gentle incline. Leivo walked this short incline, so the gap closed a bit again. As the road made it way in slow climb through the forest this pattern repeat on the slightly steeper section. By the time we came to a junction, and a left turn towards the half-way aid station (beside a huge lake) I was within 5 meters.

After the turn there was a couple of hundred meters of gentle descent and I slowly closed the gap to run beside him. We chatted about how much was left to the aid station (a volunteer on a quad bike had said it was about 5 kilometers when he passed us on the lakeside road). When we hit the next short climb I ran up as usual, but Leivo again walked. This pattern repeated over the net few kilometers of dirt road so that the gap opened up.

After what seemed like a lot longer than 5 kilometers I finally reached the junction for the out and back run down to the lakeshore. it was a long enough out and back section, so it could be interesting to see if I’d meet anyone coming out. Sure enough a few hundred meters down I met a runner in a bright orange jacket who I hadn’t seen before, and gave him a wave. A few minutes later Chico was making solid speed up the road, and I gave him a wave and some verbal encouragement.

Unusually we were scanned in and out about 200 meters from the aid station itself. I was quite glad to get to this aid station, as I had been trying to maintain a relatively fast cruise pace on dirt rod section, so a little time out would allow a little recovery. As usual I was aiming to minimise this stop. Rory was in the aid station and we had a quick chat. She was looking as fresh as ever.

Ushuaia UTMB from Plane 4 (2 lakes)

The trail followed the shoreline of the smaller lake on the bottom left, then along a dirt track just visible in the trees, with an out and back to the big lake, before heading into the big hills.

Our drop bags (30 litre plastic bags which we could put supplies into) had been moved to here by the race organisation. I had lots of spare clothes, but through the entire race so far I had not changed a thing, keeping all my layers on through all the various conditions we encountered. I was also carry an extra fleece layer in my ruck sack already, along with my lightweight heavy-duty Mountain Hardware mittens, So I already had all I reckoned I needed. As was somewhat predictable I hadn’t touched the small food supplies I had on my rucksack either.

So all I needed to do was swap head torch batteries for my #1 lamp (just in case… I had no idea how long we would be spending in the dark at the end), and pour the peach juices I had in the drop bag into one of my water bottles. I had also been drinking very little to this point. I started the race with one of my bottles filled with orange and mango juices, and it was still about half full. Whilst doing this I accepted the offer of some coffer from the aid station staff, just for a little warming effect, and maybe a caffeine kick.

Of course Murphy’s law applied and the two things I wanted were at the bottom of the drop bag, so there was a scattering and re-shoveling of kit. Whilst doing this Rory headed out, and Leivo arrived in. After what I reckon was about 10 minutes I was ready to go. Two more runners arrived in (now I knew the gap behind). I grabbed a few bits of fruit again, supplemented by a few nice jelly sweets for a sugar kick (as well as simply tasting great), and then I was out the door and off again.

The easy drifting run down to the aid station was now a moderate climb back out. I made sure to run the whole thing, knowing that would probably start building a gap again. As this was roughly halfway distance wise I was starting to switch to a more aggressive racing mode. The limb ahead was one of the big ones on the course, and the race notes indicated it was quite steep and technical. It was also a lot higher than the snow-covered pass of the preceding climb, so conditions had the potential to be very “interesting” up there.

After the out and back junction it was back onto the relatively flat dirt road for a few kilometers, before a left turn led to much narrower muddy jeep track which was a bit steeper. At this point it had finally stopped snowing, and there were even hints of blue skies.

I reckoned the muddy jeep track was still just about runable, so I kept the running going without over exerting. I actually was running very well indeed now. I’ve definitely been climbing a lot better in the last month, and the results of this training were kicking in nicely. I manged to run this entire dirt track section, and hit the downhills comfortably but at a very good speed.

I had chosen to use a fairly unique pair of shoes for this race, which combines the Outdry Extreme waterproof upper and built-in gator of the Columbia Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes with the very aggressive grip and nicely balanced cushioning of the Columbia Montrail Trans Alps Shoe. The grip was noticeable on the muddy downhills and I was flying along with confidence as a result.

The road took me up into a high valley,where it ended and led onto a barely existing trail through very rough ground. Back to full-on technical running. The views around me were fabulous. I was wondering which of the passes through the high peaks the trail would take. There were definitely no easy options.

The trail round its way through very rough ground in the middle of the valley before heading into forest on the left side of the valley. As I looked ahead I reckoned I caught sight of a flash of bright green. I must have closed the gap right up on Rory. This was good. I was working to ensure that I wouldn’t be caught and overtaken, but gaining on runners in front was a nice side effect.

The section through the forest was another very technical undulating track that seemed to be fairly new. After about 20 minutes or so I started catching more regular glimpses of Rory. Eventually I ended up within 10 meters. She must have noticed me, as she upped he speed a little and started very slowly opening the gap again. Motivation was working in both directions and we were both moving well as a result.

The forested trail slowly climbing the left side of the valley ended with a left turn, with the trail heading pretty much straight up the side of the mountain beside a small stream. This was in no way runable. It was quite the opposite. The ground was very steep indeed. I was thinking that anyone who gets this far without poles will be at a significant disadvantage here.

The steep climb witched here and there to being open ground beside the stream, to being inside the edge of the forest. Going through the forest sections I was having flashbacks to Barkley. This was a seriously steep challenging climb. I was going to make it my priority to get up with reasonable speed, but not to over-exert. It would be very easy to push too hard here, with a huge chunk of the race still left to go. And this is was just the first of the 3 significant big climbs (having lost the original first climb to a weather related safety call to reroute the race).

Rory was moving just a little faster ahead, but every now and then would stop for a moment, so overall the gap didn’t change much. The climb was relentless, and if anything seemed to be getting steeper. Once above the forest the open ground was covered in snow. Again, there was no obvious path, but there was a line of footsteps in the snow that was easily followed, passing the occasion race marker. About half way up Rory began to steadily open the gap between us again. I was sticking to my plan to pace this climb very carefully and not blow any limits too soon, so this didn’t bother me.

About two-thirds of the way there was a small plateau, where there were some tents pitched (Probably safety team). Looking up the final wall of the climb it looked steeper again.  It was also much more rock-covered, so likely more technical. I could see two other runners ahead higher up the slope. It looked like Chico, a little ahead of the orange jacketed runner. Amazingly Chico was still in shorts. It was bloody cold up here now! Rory had been making excellent pace and looked to be halfway towards catching the runner ahead.

We had been warned that the ground here was steep and covered in loose rocks, but the snow and cold temperatures had the effect of holding it all together. So the chances of someone knocking rocks down from above accidentally were significantly reduced.

I took the climb on patiently and made my way up steadily. Despite not putting in too big an effort I was happy with the speed of progress. Towards the top the wind was becoming more noticeable, with a significant chilling effect. Overall it was an epic climb, one of hardest I’ve done in a running race, made all the more epic by the weather conditions. I was thankful to have got it done in a relatively dry period of the day.

Finally I topped out, with a marshal on top tagging my number. He told me that the next big climb was being taken out of the race as it was too windy up on the pass. I wasn’t sure whether this was good or bad news! We had now lost two of the four big climbs in the race due to the weather conditions. So I was going to have an easier day. On the other hand longer races suit me better, and the longer a race goes generally the more opportunity I get to grind out a good result.

I couldn’t see any runners in front looking down the mountain. They must be descending fast. It was less steep on this side of the mountain, but all the snow on the ground mixed in with rock fields made for a tricky descent. Again, I was taking this relatively easily and gently as I didn’t want to risk a slide/trip and fall. It took quite a while to get any kind of rhythm going on such technical terrain.

A did look around a fair bit making this descent, and the scenery was fairly epic. It was definitely turning into an epic race. I was recalling chatting to someone recently saying the main reason I turned myself into a runner from my hill walking / mountaineering previous life was for the competitive aspect. You generally don’t race mountaineering. But this race WAS actually feeling more like a raced mountaineering event for large parts. I was definitely enjoying the adventure.

The descent turned right to head out the valley, and became significantly flatter. As a result it was back to good running speed. However the ground was quite boggy from here, and all the fresh precipitation made it very waterlogged in parts. There were some nice zippy undulating sections through sections of forest to break things up. At one point I caught sight of a red jacket head. None of the runners I knew of ahead had a red jacket though. A few minutes late I caught up with the red jacket in a forest section. It was a pair of hillwalks. We exchanged “Hola”s and they wished me well with my running (I think).

It got a little steeper again, but now the ground was turning into cut-up boggy muddy trail. A lifetime living in Ireland means that I know how to mud-surf down these kind tracks with a good amount of speed! I could see a power-line tower in a flat plain ahead, so I guessed I must be starting the approach to the next aid station. (The power-line is probably near a road, and the road is where an aid station is most easily set up, particularly if there is a building there).

At this stage I was very happy with my energy levels, and with the speed I was maintaining. It felt like I could keep this up for a long time. It was also good psychologically that I was more wondering if I would be able to catch any runners ahead, than worrying about anyone catching me from behind. I had no idea what my race position was, but if the last runner I had seen ahead of me was Rory Bosio then it must be alright.

Hitting the flat plain the trail turned into a more obvious walking track. A times there were long sections where pieces of wood were laid out to provide a “bridge” of sorts across boggy ground, sometimes one or two hundred meters long. There were a few hill walkers along these trails as well.

I was pretty glad to get to the next aid station in the end. I probably took about 3 times longer than usual here… in other words 2 or 3 minutes. I grabbed a few pieces of fruit (The fruit at all the food aid stations was really nice, with slices of apple, orange and banana generally available). I also grabbed a small cup of coffee mainly for the warmth, but sure a little caffeine kick would do no harm!. One last grab of a few jelly sweets and off I went.

This was originally designed to be an out and back loop, but with the removal of the next mountain pass it no longer looped back to the inbound track. For such a short stop I was feeling quite nicely refreshed afterwards. There was a tent near the trail with marshals at the  new turn point down the alternate lower course. There was much smiley waving and cheering in both directions as I ran by and turned onto the new course.

This section looked like it was another well tracked walking trail. It was nice and wide, with good footing and pretty non-technical. Since it was replacing a mountain section I reckoned it was unlikely to be too steep. So I again reminded myself that I was in a race and concentrated on putting out a good fast pace, running the uphills as much as possible.

The trail turned out to be nicely undulating, and I was moving along and a very nice pace indeed. I had no issues running the uphill sections, and really started to fly along nicely through the downhill sections. It really felt like I was speeding along, but in a very sustainable way. Hopefully I would be able to keep this kind of speed and effort level going to the end (however far away that was now, given the truncated course)

I was well used to running solo by now, having spent a long time with no sign of any other runners ahead, and not even bothering to look behind at this point. The trail took a slightly longer flying downhill section for a few hundred meters, and then across one of the wooden platforms across a flat bog in open ground for about 100 meter. As I got to the wooden section I saw two runners ahead. I quickly caught the first one, who was moving very slowly indeed. I didn’t recognise him, so I reckoned he was probably on one of the shorter courses. Now that the finish line was getting closer the 4 different races of 4 different lengths and start times were starting to combine up to reach the shared finish line.

The other runner was wearing a gray top, and was making much better speed. I couldn’t tell much else apart from that, but it gave me another mini-target to chase down. At the speed I was going I was confident I could catch anyone I could see in front of me. With the trail heading back into twisty forested section I lost sight of the gray topped runner again for a few minutes, but then I started seeing them, and seeing I was closing in on them.

As I closed that gap I also noticed that the orange jacketed runner was also appearing ahead in glimpses. I then recognised the bandanna on the gray-topped runner. It was Rory again. I must have been really flying on this section of trail to close them both down. Rory must have taken off her jacket for the lower level sections. However by now it was starting to pelt rain, so just as I closed to within about 20 meters of Rory she stopped, /i’m assuming to put her green shell jacket back on. We both helloed and holaed each other as I flew by.

I was right behind the orange jacketed runner now. I was really happy to have closed this gap considering how far in front of me he had been at the halfway turnaround. I closed in the gap steadily, and passed by him as the trail ramped up into one of its relatively steep undulations. My passing seemed to motivate him to up his effort though,and I could hear him just behind me as we ran on up a steady incline on the trail.

The trail topped out on a road section. This lasted  few hundred meters, and I switched to road-ultra mode to keep my speed maximised. I could no longer hear the orange jacketed runner behind me. The route left the road and headed down onto a forest road that ran below and parallel. This was fairly muddy , as it was obviously being used for forestry operations, and the rain was making for plenty of puddles and standing water. I was still concentrating on pushing the speed along to try to keep Rory and the orange jacket behind, and maybe even start to grow a gap.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this trail I could see an aid station coming up in a building of some sort, with another pair of runners slowly approaching it. I reckoned those runners were a little too slow to be front-runners in the long (FMU) course. Probably more runners from shorter course. I reckoned I’d start seeing a lot more of them, and that it would become much harder to track who was on my course.

Into the aid station for an express stop. This time a quick cup of coke, plus the usual grabbing of one or two bits of fruit and a few jellies, and then out the door. Probably under a minute. The orange jacketed runner arrived in about 30 seconds or less after me, so he had tracked me well into the station. So even though I had caught up with him fairly well it looked like creating a gap behind would be harder. I was happy though that since the halfway point I had (presumably) completely left my immediate chaser behind,and had created some new ones in the best way.

The aid station had quite a number of runners from other courses in there. After leaving the was a marshal directing us on down another road-paralleling track, with signs up for several of the courses. Yup, It was definitely all in now, and there would more than likely be a lot more runners around. I couldn’t quite remember what the next section entailed on the route profile, but I knew there was some sort of hill involved.

The first 5 or 10 minutes mixed up some road running with trail running parallel to the road, and as expected I overtook a few people from other courses. The route finally left the road and after a few sharp turns started a climb through forest on more technical running trails. Through the last very acute turn I had the opportunity to look over at the road and see the distinctive orange jacket with 200 meters or so. Motivation isn’t an issue here!

The rain was pretty heavy, and as a result the trails were muddy. As the trail ramped up steeply I needed my poles to help with traction in the muddy ground. I ran the first few of the steeper ramps, but after while switched to walking the really steep sections. There had obviously been a lot more runners going through beforehand on these later trails, as they had really been cut up with a massive amount of footprints plugged into the mud.

The muddy section became longer and longer. Any time I came up on shorter course runners they were not moving very fast through the mud. Being Irish, these were conditions I knew how to handle, and would usually go rocketing past, relatively speaking. As the route became more undulating than continuously climbing some of the mud sections became more extreme. The kind of deep deep mud that I would rarely come across even in Irish races. I was very thankful I had gone with my highest grip shoes. The gators were also doing a good job of keeping the mud from getting into my feet.

Gradually the trail began to descend gradually. This was back to being maximum speed possible running. I passed one runner who looked a candidate to be on my course (guessing by the gear he had), but I couldn’t be sure at all. I could hear jet engines at one point, which probably meant I was getting close to Ushuaia. I then stated spotting some houses in hills across a valley.. Ushuaia was definitely getting close.

The trail then popped out onto full width hardpack road. I recognised this as being the road that leads up from Ushuaia to the poshest hotel in town, the Arkur, where the press conference had been held on Friday. So I knew it would be full speed down this hardpack road to get to the main tarmac road out of Ushuaia. 10 minute later it was onto the footpath of the tarmac road, crossing a bridge over a wide river valley. I could see a steady enough number of runners coming out from a road ahead on the right. They were undoubtedly shorter course runners coming from the out-and-back aid station.

As I headed in on the turn into the aid station I could look across the valley to see the route I had taken down, and could see the distinctive orange jacket coming down. He was within a few hundred meters, so that entire section had made very little difference to the gap between us. I definitely couldn’t relax, even though the end was starting to feel close.

Into the aid station, ad pretty much a repeat of the previous one… a few bits of fruit and a coke. I was the only runner running down the halls in the building, which seemed to be a big ski station. After a minute or so I headed back out don the hall, and met Rory coming the other way. She had obviously re-caught and passed the orange jacketed runner, and was close to catching me. More motivations, and definitely no relaxing for the last leg.

Heading back down the road into the aid station I saw the orange jacketed runner, along with the runner I suspected was on my course. They were chatting and running together so I guessed he was.so now there was 4 of us pretty close together. I didn’t anticipate that this race would be so “racey” at this late stage, given the relatively small field.

This stage is a nasty one if you’re feeling tired. The route heads along a road at the top of the town, before heading away again up into the last big climb of the race. I could see that I was within a kilometer of my hotel at one point. It would be so easy to just run down there! But I was racing now knowing I had to keep my best speed up with 3 near chasers. By now there was always at least one shorter course runner in view pretty much all the time,and I was overtaking them all in turn.

Ushuaia Lagoon reflection

Ushuaia in the evening. The route followed a road along the heights above the town.

After what seemed like an age of road running I finally reached the start of the trail where it would climb away from town and up into the mountains. It started steeply. For once I decided to try to power walk this sections. 10 or 20 meters up I looked behind to see Rory and the other long course runner about 50 meters behind about to hit the trail themselves. I didn’t see the orange jacket though. They must have burned him off. They seemed to have closed up ground to me too, so a catch could be immanent.

The slope became slightly less steep, which enabled me to start running again. By now daylight was rapidly being lost. I knew I’d have to dig out my head torch from my backpack pretty soon. After a few hundred meters the trail turned from fireroad to proper forest trail, with the surrounding trees ensuring there was even less light to work with. I was surprised not to have been overtaken by now, or even see the other 2 behind any more.

A few minutes later I knew I had crossed the point where it would be counterproductive not to have my headtorch active, so I stopped to get it out and put it into position. It was now pretty cold, so it took a little longer than I thought it would to get my bag unzipped and root out the torch. And of course in the minute or two it took to get this all done, several of the short course runners, as well as Rory and the other FMU runner passed by.

I knew I had enough battery power to use the torch at almost any light setting I wanted given that there was only mountain left to climb, but even the lower power setting was plenty. Within a minute or two I had caught and passed the other FMU runner. That made me think that when push come to shove I should be able to get in front even if we close towards the finish, but I reckoned he was probably on the limit as is.

A minute later I was about to catch Rory yet again when she again stopped to make some trail-side change. So now things had reverted back to the state at the start of the climb, but I had got my head torch on and shouldn’t need to stop again.

I kept a running pace up through the steady relentless moderate climb through the forest, gradually opening up a gap of one or two hundred meters on the pair behind. A few sharper steeper ramps had me change to power walking, which broke my running rhythm. As the climb was now definitely steeper in general I settled in to steady fast walking. The gap seemed to hold fairly steady (I was only glancing occasional as the path zig-zagged). We were still working our way continuously and steadily through shorter course runners on the trail.

It was a long steep climb through the forest before we broke through the tree line. There was a massive change breaking out into the open ground. What had been fairly sheltered soft snowfall in the forest was now a harsh windy blizzard. The ground was completely covered in snow. I reckon it was at least a foot or two deep (but I’m no snow guru). With that much snow there was no sign of a trail, but with so many runners making their way along this section of the course there was a ton of footprints in the snow to follow.

I had covered most of the race so far making almost no changes to the gear I was wearing. It was functioning well through a wide variety of (mostly terrible) weather. And by no changes I mean little more than occasionally adjusting a zip. But this was definitely the harshest conditions yet. And since it was now just after sunset it was likely only to get colder. So I put my hood of my Outdry down jacket mid-layer up, which gave my head and face a nice bubble of protection, once I angled it to shelter from the harsh horizontal wind-driven snow.

Ushuaia - hills behind town

The hills behind the town, showing plenty of snow on the ground. The route wound around up there!

The open ground section was noticeably less steep than the prior forest section. After a while it was shallow enough that I was able to run long sequences, even in the snow, without over-exerting myself. Hopefully this would make it harder to be caught. I was also thinking I needed to keep a good effort up to stay as warm as possible (I had a spare fleece layer if things got bad, but I didn’t want to have to stop for any reason in these conditions if I didn’t have to).

The one layer that was no longer working so well was my gloves. They were a good Polartec pair, but as I hadn’t pt any waterproof layer over them. I could feel my fingers freezing. But it wasn’t so uncomfortable as to cause any speed issues, so I decided to just put up with it and carry on without stopping (I had a pair of Mountain Hardwear Outdry down mittens in my bag that would be well able to deal with much harsher conditions than this, but it would have taken a minute or two to dig them out).

The climb went on and on and on. It seemed to slowly curve around the mountain as it worked its way up, giving changes to the angle the wind was driving the snow from. I was still regularly passing runners (well walkers here) from the shorter courses. Some of them didn’t sound too comfortable, But there was enough runners around that if anyone got into real trouble help would come within seconds. There were so many clusters of runners, and visibility was so tricky, that I had no way of telling where the two behind me were. So I simply had to do the obvious and keep ploughing on as fast as I could manage.

The hill plateaued out, and a there were a few marshals around scanning numbers (An important safety task in these conditions in particular). I had a vague memory from the route profile that the check was a little before the peak. I’m glad  did, because I was mentally prepared to climb a little more. And indeed there was at least another five minutes, if not more, of climb before finally reaching the top.

Looking down I could see the headtorches of the runners ahead. The trail seemed to arc around to the left in front of me in a slow descent, before diving down much more steeply. I carefully set off down, using my poles for extra stability and braking. I didn’t want a fall at this late stage. The arced turn went well, as I eased myself into running down the snow slope.

Then the slope got considerably steeper. And it was covered in snow. I could see tracks going everywhere, and runners trying to make their way down all over the place. This was going to be interesting! I gingerly  took a few carefully controlled steps down, maximizing my pole use. But it wasn’t enough. I lost traction and went sliding down a few meters before managing to arrest the slide. Anywhere where previous runners had gone sliding was now lethally slippy, and a no-go track as far as I was concerned.

So I tried to pick out fresh lines to maximise my traction. This worked well for the most part, although I did take one or two more slides. I was still making much much better progress than all the other runners around though. One thing I knew is that even a long slide here would probably be benign unless I was really unlucky, as there didn’t seem to be any cliffs or sharp drops, or protruding rocks. I still wanted to be in control though, and hot any visible track markers (The yellow poles were still showing above the snow).

After about two or three hundred meters the slope became less steep, so I was able to get trotting again, still moving a lot faster than the other runners around. Hover another steeper sections saw me take another slide. The effects of that slide made my lower calf muscles to cramp, so I found myself trying to stretch out the cramp on the side of a steep snow slope. It took a twenty or thirty seconds to get that sorted. I then set off again cautiously trying to find the least slippy line down.

This was not easy running. But it was a huge amount of fun, and yet more mountaineering racing! After a while I was able to get running (slowly and carefully) again, and work my way down towards the treeline.

Once I hit the treeline running conditions were much better. Even though the ground was much steeper again, and the trail was switching back and forth on technical ground, it was less snow-covered and much grippier. On less secure sections the trees were a crash-target which could be aimed for in case a slide came unexpectedly. I was speeding up for sure, and still overtaking shorter course runners regularly. Ahead I caught  glimpse of Ushuaia, and lights being reflected in the sea. It didn’t look too far ahead, but I guessed it was probably further than I wanted it to be!

The ground became less steep, and the forest and lower altitude meant that the snow cover was no longer such a big factor. Now it was back to a different type of technical running, as the trail was cut-up mud for the most part, with plenty of tree roots. But a little bit of concentration meant I was actually flying along nicely for the most, pretty confident in my ability to handle the slippy muddy ground.

At one point a small river merged into the trail and the trail was literally a river for about 100 meters. I was “WTF”ing out loud at this, just behind another runner. Hopefully he didn’t think I was referring to him, and I gave a cheery Hola just in case (I tried to say Hola to most runners as I approached them to let them know I was coming, and try to say it cheerily so that the didn’t feel under any pressure).

I still had no idea how far behind the others were, so that ensured that I kept the pressure on myself to keep the speed as high as was safe. I had a very nice flow going now, and was enjoying the technical nature of the descent (and the fact that it was almost all downhill to the finish). Gradually the snow had transformed to heavy rain as the altitude reduced, ensuring the ground was either muddy or waterlogged, but always requiring attention.

Eventually I thought I saw a cabin or house nearby, and a few minutes later I popped out onto a road, where the local police were marshaling to ensure we could cross and head down. The end was starting to feel really close now! But I knew this was the very high side of town and there was still at least a few kilometers to go yet. And I knew that I still couldn’t relax, given how close the others had stayed on the last leg.

There were a few off-road shortcuts of a few hundred meters through the high part of town, but mostly this was now a road descent. The rain was really bad now… properly Irish conditions. I overtook one or two other short course runners. The last of them said something to me as I passed, and then stuck in behind me. Maybe he wanted to pace off me or run down together. My Spanish wasn’t up to finding out, but it was no problem either way.

When we hit the denser street section it was getting harder to find the markers to see which direction we should be running in, so it was actually useful to have a second set of eyes here. A little bit of pointing doesn’t need any translation. We worked our way down several kilometers of streets at a good fast pace. Big junctions now had marshals on them to ensure we could get through the traffic safely. This town seemed a lot bigger than I thought.

And then suddenly I recognised the building 200 meters in front as being the bar at the finish line….yeehaw.  blasted on. My companion dropped back a bit, so I was able to run in solo. Thankfully none of me competitors behind were nearby, so no raced sprint finish was required (I really thought it might happen earlier). The spectators cheered me in to the finish. Done! I had no idea how long I took or what my position was.

The race announcer came over to me, so asked him what my position was. 8th, and 2nd M2. I was delighted with that. 2nd M2 was the best I could hope for given that Patrick Bohard was likely to run away with the category. And 8th was 3 places better than my “paper” ITRA ranking before the race. Top ten is always good. And I had managed to win all my mini battles that had been going on since half way. I was definitely on an up! We did a quick finish line interview. Apparently my description of the race as being “interesting” was a first.

There were good post race facilities laid on. I was able to sit in a very warm changing room and strip off all my wet gear. I had retrieved my Drop bag, and was able to change into the dry gear I had there (a complete set). I met Chico here. He had finished 5th in the end and seemed happy too.

I was in remarkably good shape. My feet didn’t have a trace of any blisters (the shoes had done their job in keeping the grit out). The only issues I had were a small bit of chaffing around my waist from the backpack. I was even walking around with relative ease. As good as it get post-race. I must have paced the effort well.

The Columbia Argentina crew had been looking for me and eventually tracked me down. Columbia really can be like a big family, and their help here was a real plus. We headed into town and I was indulged in a late night meal, hitting a really good Argentinian restaurant where the specialty was the local lamb roasted on an open fire. That was absolutely perfect post race food (Thanks Kevin!).


Post Race Analysis

This race was like a combination of several race I’ve competed in previously. The long road sections (which were not originally in the plan) were like a flat 24 hour race. Some of the steeper sections of forested rough to non-existent trails were giving me Barkley flashbacks. And the weather was definitely Spine-like, with only 3 or 4 hours of relatively benign conditions. It was most definitely an Epic.

The statistics for the race reflect this. They are showing that only about half the field managed to finish the race (and some of these may have been over the adjusted cut offs). The weather caused a huge rate of attrition, to the extent that several of the prize categories has no finishers.

The original course would have made for a very nice race indeed. A good high standard of technical trails, mixed in with some joining-up dirt track sections, through an a fabulous wild scenic landscape. The weather definitely adds and edge which needs to be embraced as part of th challenge. This is a worthy addition to the UTMB collection. Hopefully the race can be lengthened out to a full UTMB style 160km or so.

In terms of achieving my pre-race targets I was very happy with the results. I had anticipated that Patrick Bohard would win my age category (over 50s), which he did with some style. He came 4th overall, but apparently was joint leader when he and Gabriel were not informed of the second course adjustment, so ended up crossing an extra mountain pass. So the end result for those 2 (4th and 2nd) was even more impressive than it looks on paper.

I was very happy to be 2nd M2, over 2 hours clear of the next category competitor. I was happier still with my 8th overall result, which beat my pre-race ITRA ranking by 3 places. It was only afterwards when analysing the results that I realised I had closed down the gap to the 2 runners in front of me to 5 minutes. Given how strongly I finished I reckon I would have had a very good chance of overhauling that gap if the course had not been shortened. But that’s only minor, and you have to race the course as it’s layed out on the day.


The M2 Category Prize-giving for the FMU course, raising arms!

I was surprised to see I built a nearly half an hour gap on the last section to the runners I had been battling. My pacing went well to finish so strongly on such a tough section to race. Again, I can only be happy with that. It think this is the first time I’ve managed to finish in front of Rory. It was great sharing so much of the course out there in close proximity. We definitely pushed and pulled each other along.

The stats on what I ate and drank during the race are also interesting. I ate no food whatsoever outside the quickly grabbed snacks provided at the aid stations. I transported my emergency food rations all the way around the course without once touching them.  I never felt hungry, or lethargically lacking in energy.

With liquids, I ran the first half out to the big lake only using about half my bottle of fruit juice, and whatever I slugged down at aid stations (which was little or nothing on the outward half). On the return leg I finished off that bottle, along with a second bottle of juice which I had filled at the halfway aid station using my drop bag. At no other point did I need to refill my water bottles.

Having good gear was a key aspect to finishing this race so well. My Columbia Outdry shell, Outdry down jacket mid-layer, and full gatored Montrail trans-alps boots were particularly key. It’s a combination I had not used before, but I reckon I got that choice spot-on under the circumstances.

Massive thanks go to my sponsors who make this possible. Columbia, as ever, provide me with a huge amount of support, and it was great to meet more members of the Columbia family out in South America.

Richard Donovan of Global Running Adventures, which organizes the North Pole Marathon, Antarctic Ice Marathon, Volcano Marathon and World Marathon Challenge (7 Marathons 7 Continents 7 Days) is my other key supporter. Over the years nobody has done more for Irish Ultra-running than Richard. He continues to be one the great supporters of Irish Athletics (as well as one of the most remarkable race organisers in the world).


Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments

UTMB Ushuaia 2019 – Prelude

I’m sitting in the city at the end of the world hoping that my world won’t end.

Sometimes things just gnaw at you, and you have to give in. This time last year I was taking part in what a lot of people regard as the toughest running race in the world, the race that eats its young. And I was duely eaten by Frozen Head State Park, like so many others. I very much wanted to get back to put everything I learned the hard way back into practice. But it wasn’t to be. So that left a huge hole in my calendar, which I was happy enough to leave unfilled.

Until. Until ideas start ruminating, and started gnawing at me.

I’ve taken part in the UTMB 6 times. (with a very odd record of having finished my first 3 and DNFed my last 3). It’s probably the most prestigious ultra trail running race on the planet. It certainly attracts the deepest strongest field. It’s a classic bucket list race that is on huge numbers of “to do” lists. UTMB has been franchising out a bit. As well as the original classic in Chamonix, it has added races in China, Oman, and newest of all Ushuaia in Argentina.

The first UTMB Oman took place in early December 2018. Having DNFed UTMB Chamonix I found myself needing to accrue some points before the end of the year if I wanted to race it again in 2019,. Oman sounded like an amazing place to run in, so I decide to give UTMB Oman a go (race report on the way!). I really enjoyed the experience. It was a very well organised race with a great technical course.

When I first heard about UTMB Ushuaia last year it didn’t grab me quite as much as Oman did. It still sounded interesting, but was a lot further away, making logistics a little harder, and more similar to Ireland in terms of climate, making it a little less exotic.

But then ideas form. Long training runs give lots of time to spin ideas around inside the head. One little idea started to push itself towards the front more and more. I wanted to embrace turning 50 some way. So an idea for a little project came into my head… Why not try to get on the over 50s category podium in each of the UTMB races. I liked this! It’s not an easy task, but it’s definitely possible if all goes well. I liked the fact that it was going to take a lot of time to try to achieve this. But I really liked it. Doing a little digging the UTMB races as a series looked even better.

UTMB Ushuaia was less than two months away when I mentally committed to see if I could make this idea work. I was a bit torn about whether to try to rush to get an entry this year, or leave it until next year. But the nagging of the idea was getting stronger, so I went about seeing if I could make it work this year, despite the looming imminence of the race.

I got a very lucky break when I discovered that just like the original UTMB, UTMB Ushuaia is sponsored by Columbia. And of course Columbia have been helping me for so long that I can’t even remember! So with a little help I was able to get a sponsor’s entry very late in the day. And just like that I was in. Hole filled. Logistics to sort out.

This is the furthest I’ve travelled for a running race. The last time I travelled this far for a race was for the Adventure Racing World Championships in Tasmania in 2011. The good thing about having taken part in international adventure racing is that organising logistic for running races is so much easier in comparison. I don’t have to worry about getting mountain bikes, canoe paddles, and about 40kg of multi-sports gear shifted to the other side of the world and back.

It still turned out that it took over 35 hours to get down to the city at the end of the world, Ushuaia. But I’m here now! I’m safely ensconced in my hotel room, with a view looking out over the Beagle channel. One of the strange things about this is that, even though it’s on the far side of the world, to me it feels a bit like my home town of Cobh. I think it’s the huge natural anchorage surrounded by protecting hills. Although the hills here are just bit higher and have a noticeable snow cap. The weather is definitely a bit Irish.


Ushuaia when the weather briefly cleared!

Yesterday I went along to the English Language race briefing (a small minority in this race). It had a lot of detail. They were definitely trying to get the point across of how technical the course was likely to be, and how significant a factor the weather could be. It was the kind of briefing that could put the heeby jeebies into anyone who hasn’t faced into something like that before. But I spent most of the briefing thinking how familiar it all sounded. Mushy ground conditions, like good old Irish bog. Nasty changeable weather, just like the Spine Race.

The briefing included a quick overview of an alternate route if the weather forecast was looking too bad for saturday morning (the race starts at 4 a.m.). Just this afternoon the message came through that we will be put on the alternate course. So it looks like we’re going to have some windy weather at least. Unfortunately that will cut out the biggest of the hills in the first (outward) half of the course. So is now going to be a “back loaded” race in terms of difficulty.


The new race profile

There are no GPS trackers for this race, but there is Livetrail tracking. Every time a runner goes through a check point we will be tagged, so it will be possible to follow the race progress at http://ushuaiabyutmb.livetrail.run/.

There are 4 races here of different lengths and difficulties, with over 900 runners entered across all 4. Obviously enough I’m in the biggest longest one, the FMU 130, which is about 130KM, now with about 6000m of climb. There are 174 runners entered in the FMU.

For my little project of targeting the M50 (called M2 here) category I have 31 direct competitors (quite a lot out of 174). The stand out favourite is Patrick Bohard from France (with a more Irish name than me!). He has an incredible record, getting many significant results which would stand out for any category, but as an M50 are outstanding. That includes winning the huge Tor De Geants. So he should have no problems here!

On the ITRA favourites list (showing runners order by their accumulated ITRA race points) I’m coming in at 11th in the field. Jason Schlarb, who jointly won UTMB Oman is top of the pile. Maybe he is on a similar project! Rory Bosio looks like the standout female in the list, as a former UTMB winner.

Not a lot more to do now, but rest up and get ready to go in the early hours of the morning.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments

The Spine Race 2019 – Preview

It’s that time of year again…let the tracking begin!

Firstly, apologies for the definite lack of blog posts in the last while. I have quite a few half written posts which I must get around to finishing. Like so much else going a bit awry these days I’m blaming Brexit. So much to keep up with, and no increase in the number of hours in the day to allow for it. Something had to give.

I’ve previewed the Spine Race on a few occasions before, and written a few blog posts describing the race itself. Rather than repeat myself I’ll let you read those to pick up all the basic details. In this post I’ll just concentrate on the specifics of this year’s upcoming event.


Course and Kit


The Spine Race Route

There were a few diversions last year on the course. Most of these have been eliminated for this year, so the course is almost fully the Pennine Way itself. The main exception is an allowed diversion past Padon hill approaching Byrness on the last leg of the race. The kit requirements are almost all the same, with the exception of a beefed up specification for the Roll Mat. I had been getting away with using the in-built mat in my OMM 32L backpack, but this no longer meets the requirements. So a little extra weight will be transported around the course this year.


The Weather

Anyone who thinks an accurate weather forecast is possible before the race has started is delusional. Anything could happen over the 4 or 5 days of the race. As usual, we’ll have to be prepared for whatever could get thrown at us, with the probable exception of a heatwave (In complete contrast to my last race, the Oman UTMB). At the moment it is looking like classic UK/Ireland hill weather… Not too cold, but murky. That’s potentially awkward racing conditions which could be hard to get the optimal balance of clothing between overheating and potential hypothermia.


The Competition

There’s no point in pretending otherwise… I’ll be aiming to win this year. But then, this has always been the case. I haven’t any major issues coming into the race, but you never know exactly what shape you’re in until reality starts biting in the race itself.

There are three or four notable absences from the Spine Race this year. Pavel will not be there. I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing of other adventures from him later in the year. He has been an iconic presence in the race over many years, and he’ll be missed. Another recent winner, Tom Hollins, is also notable by his absence.

Jim Mann will be competing in the Spine Challenger. Given the speed he made it out on the challenger course last year, whilst presumably pacing for the full Spine which he was competing in, he’s my very firm favourite to take the win in that race. He was i looking like being the easy winner last year when injury took him out of the race. Similarly Carol Morgan is also doing some speedwork by competing in the Challenger, and looks to be the favourite for the female category (Come on the Irish!).

That still leaves plenty of interest in the Spine Race itself. The most obvious first mention goes to Eugeni Rosello Sole. Eugeni has won the race in the past, and is always one of the fastest runners on the course. His usual race tactic is to stick with Pavel for as long as possible. That’s probably as much to do with conversation as anything else. Of course he hasn’t got that option this year, so it will be interesting to see how he goes. My Spanish is considerably worse than his English, so I won’t be a useful Pavel substitute for him!

There is a reasonable chance the race could be won outright by a female this year, as Jasmin Paris is competing. She is a phenomenal athlete. Her record speaks for itself. Her Bob Graham Round time is my particular favourite of hers. She’s also the current British fell running champion. She will be one of the fastest runners in the race for sure. This will be her first non-stop multi-day race, so it will be interesting to see how she will adapt. It makes it hard to predict how she will compete as a result. If all goes well its possible she could break the course record and win. Needless to say I definitely expect that Jasmin will win the female category.

Another runner who looks to have an excellent past record in shorter events is Jayson Cavill. Plenty of wins and fast results of note, including multiple wins at the Lakeland 50. I can’t see any results for longer races for him though, so again its hard to predict how well he will adapt to multi-day non-stop racing. If he turns out to be a natural at this then he should be a strong contender.

My teammate from the last adventure race I competed in, Thure Kjaer, is competing in the Spine for the first time. He has a hard-earned PTL finish from last year. He’s got the skill set required to get around the course and deal with the specific challenges of the Spine. We count him as being a honouary Irishman! It’ll be interesting to see how well he does. I’m expecting him to go very well indeed. Thure will be huge addition to the race itself.

Beast 2017 team

Beast team 2017 (Richard, Taryn, Eoin, Thure)

There are also runners like John Knapp and Matt Neale who have enough experience and pace to give themselves a good chance to get on the podium, especially if the likes of me start making big mistakes.



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.


See you on the other side!

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All aboard for the Northern Traverse

This Saturday (12th May) I’ll be taking part in one of my favorite races. The Northern Traverse Starts at 9:00 a.m. in St Bees on the West coast of England. We have to make our way along Wainwright’s coast to coast route non-stop finishing in Robin Hood’s Bay on the East Coast.


The Northern Traverse Route

The route traverses 3 significant upland areas. These are the Lake district, The Northern Pennines, and the North York Moors. This is a spectacular route. I particularly love the Lake district, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. This year I’m hoping that the weather will allow me to see more of the areas I’m less familiar with.

The first edition of this race was 2 years ago. I ran a good race to win in a time of just under 52 hours. That happened to be the longest I ever went without sleep, which was a bit of an accident! The weather turned quite stormy on the North York Moors, and as a result I wasn’t able to grab a sleep when I most needed it.

This year I’m back to try to defend my title, and hopefully not get quite so sleep deprived. Another great thing about this race is that the organisers are also the main race tracking company in the UK. So of course full tracking will be available for the race here. Being the sole Irish entrant my flag is easy to pick out there!

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Preparing for Barkley (Striving for Optimal Idiocy)

The last few months have been very very targeted to getting to Barkley, and giving myself the best chance of performing well once I get there. Pretty much everything has been focused in that direction.

Logistics and Crew

The first things to sort out were getting whatever help I could muster, and then sorting out the logistics of getting there. The most obvious crew person would have been Helen, my wife. Unfortunately Barkley coincides with a  very intense period of time with her work, so she was not able to commit.

Mike Dobies is “the numbers man” of American ultra running. He was going to be at Barkley helping Laz out,  no doubt compiling all the race stats. I’ve met Mike a few times over the years, most recently on his visit to Ireland crewing for the American 24 hour running team at the Belfast world championships. As I knew he would be there anyway, and that he is a super knowledgeable and experienced crewman, I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t check his availability. I lucked out, as he was indeed there and not crewing for anyone.

In the meantime as soon as I told Richard Nunan, my Team Columbia Ireland adventure racing teammate, that I had a Barkley entry he immediately offered to help. That could  not be turned down! He had done a brilliant job crewing for my record run from Mizen to Malin, and is someone I can totally rely on.

So that was great. One of the hardest things to do was sorted out in style relatively early. After that the rest of the logistics was working out where to fly to, how to get to Frozen Head, where to stay etc. Having Richard Donovan come in a sponsor really helped in a big way here, as it just became a matter of finding the optimal options to get there and arrive at the race in as rested a state as possible.



I’ve been concentrating training on getting in plenty of hills in all conditions. The Irish winter (And the Spine Race) have both been very co-operative in giving me plenty of practice in running about the mountains in a wide mix of weathers. What I haven’t practiced much of is running through trees. And by that I don’t mean running in wooded areas, but rather running right into the vegetation itself and out the other side. Rhododendron outbreaks would probably be ideal for this, but I don’t have any good local examples that I know of.

The potential totals for climb and descent in the Barkley are enormous. I’ve seen estimates of over 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) in a few places. That would make it the hilliest race I’ve ever done. By comparison the total vertical gain in the UTMB is under 10,000 meters, and distances would be quite similar. As a result, unsurprisingly, I’ve been trying to emphasise hill work and building up my climbing strength. It feels like that has been working, but I won’t really know until reality bites.

Even my first big race of 2018, The Spine Race, mentally became an excellent week’s training from my own perspective… I was still trying as hard as ever, but it was had changed to being more a means to an end than an end in itself. That actually probably made the Spine race more enjoyable for me, as I was putting fewer eggs into that basket, so to speak.



I think its been the case that every ultra run I’ve entered I’ve always gone in wondering how competitive I’d be. This started right back at my first ultra race, which was The Wicklow Way Ultra (Now called the Maurice Mullins Ultra, in memory of the race’s creator… Maurice was an early pioneer of ultra running in Ireland and encouraged me hugely in my early development as an ultra runner.). Even on that first ultra I was in the lead group of 4 for most of the race (before finishing 4th, but plenty learned).

In fact even my first ever running race almost 20 years ago had me launching at the Dublin city marathon not to finish, but to try to break 3 hours (2:57 achieved), after a very good last long run training session with my training buddies.

There has been no running race since then that I haven’t been trying to compete in at some level, rather than simply complete… all the way up to world championships and similar high level races with tough completion targets such as the Spartathlon and the The Spine Race.

The only times I tend to get intimidated in races these days is for swimming sections in adventure races, and even at that swimming tends to be a tiny part of these races that I just need to “get through”. The last race that really intimidated me in its entirety was the Primal Quest Utah Adventure race in 2006. My team was nearly a year preparing for that one, and it was a big new experience in a fantastic, but totally unfamiliar environment of the Utah Desert. I can well remember being at the opening ceremony and watching this video that was clearly designed to psych us all out (which it did!).

And then there’s Barkley. A race that needs no videos to psych people out! This is the first running race that I’ve entered that intimidates me. And it does so in a big way. On paper I have a good background to take it on. I have a good ultra running history. I’m a competitive multi-day racer. I’m a competitive ultra trail racer. I’ve got a hill walking and mountaineering background. I’ve raced in tricky terrain. I’m a navigator on adventure racing teams. I’m used to finding my way around on my own in the dark in crappy weather. All great. But this is Barkley. Barkley isn’t raced “on paper”. Barkley isn’t really raced…. if you’re really good and really lucky then it is survived!

So then… how to approach it, and what to target. If you’ve watched the film you’ll have heard some of the competitors put it perfectly. I think you’ve got to go in with the attitude that you’ll try to complete the 5 laps. If you don’t have that in some way as a target then failure is definite. But at the same time have the realistic knowledge that this is unlikely to be achieved. Failure isn’t inevitable, but it is highly likely.

In terms of my own targets… well I just don’t have enough knowledge to really know. Only experience of the race will truly give me that. So I’m simply targeting to go out and do my best, try not to get lost too often, and to finish satisfied that I gave it my best shot.


Entry Fee

I’m a Barkley virgin, so the entry fee for me is Licence plate from my home country. I don’t own a car, so it’s a less obvious choice for me. A day or two after getting my entry I was cycling up a hill and noticed a mangled plate left behind after a fender bender. I thought about it! Jeeze… Barkley sets you off doing strange things. But then thought that that would have been a bit too vulture-like. I’ve put a bit of thought into it, and hopefully have something suitable now.




Ha! Barkley is the anti-technology race. Nobody will be carrying trackers. We’re not even allowed carry our own watches, due to the possibility of having too much technology on our wrists. (Laz issues everybody with a nice low tech watch so we can at least know how close we’re getting to the cut-offs). The only technology we carry is a map and compass. Updates on the race are patchy at best, and tend to only reliably happen as runners arrive and depart the start/finish line at loop transitions. There are a few places online where updates are posted on the race as it progresses.

Richard will be hoping to post updates to my Athlete page on Facebook here. That depends on connectivity at the race HQ. There’ll be plenty of media at the race, so there should be lots coverage getting out over time. I’m sure Mike Dobies will also be ensuring that accurate data get published when available.



I’ve been trying to think of any new gear I might be able to get hold of that would be of particular help for Barkley. I’m already very well geared up with my range of Columbia clothes, such as lightweight Outdry Extreme shell jackets, that will most definitely be a big help, especially if the weather is in any way wet. I’ve also got a few different types of shoes to bring. I’ve gone for waterproof shoes, more to keep grit and debris out than to keep water out. I don’t expect to really be able to keep water out. I’ve got the Montrail Mountain Masochist for maximum protection, and the Montrail Mojave II for more cushioning.

Another major item of gear that I reckoned could potentially make a big difference is head torches. Depending on the start time it could be possible that more than half the race could be run in darkness. I can remember an old saying from back in my orienteering days referring to night orienteering “he with the biggest headtorch wins”… which was often true (but then the best orienteers usually splashed out on searchlights for their head). I reckoned it would be worth a weight penalty to get as powerful a headtorch as possible (within reason), that could last for a full night at high power.

John in the Great Outdoors was extremely helpful with this. As a result I have a Petzl Nao+ and a Led Lenser MH10 as back-up. Yet again Richard Donovan’s sponsorship helped hugely here, as it enabled me to get hold of an even more exotic option by picking up a Lupine headtorch as well, with a massive peak output.



Given that this eejit is a proud Corkonian, I think this song from a great Cork band is highly appropriate (especially as there is a direct link to my Barkley crew, eh Richard!). There’s more than one way to be an idiot. Hopefully if I get any ear-worms in Barkley they’ll be suitably lively.


Finally, Thanks again to everyone who is helping make this possible,  especially Helen, Richard Mike, and my sponsors Richard Donovan, Columbia, and the Great Outdoors.

Thanks also for all the messages of support coming through in multiple media! They’re all much appreciated.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 9 Comments