September 30, 2012

Ultra Race of Champions 100km

Virginia.  Well, it's not a place that I had imagined that I would ever go to.  It was pretty much one of those US states that I had of course heard of and knew kinda, roughly, approximately where it was, but when I booked my flight to Charlottesville I did have to pull out the map to check more precisely where it was.  I'm a Brit, US geography is not my forte.  It's not that I didn't want to go to Virginia but it's just not one of those places that I can see I would have ended up going to unless there was a reason.  And Ultra Race of Champions 100km (UROC) was definitely a good reason to go; in it's 2nd year the event aims to pull together a competitive feild of ultra runners with a good cash purse, invites going out and the 'elites' all being accommodated and hosted on our stay there.

So I arrived at Charlottesville at 1030pm on Thursday and was met my Rosemary who would be driving us to the race venue of Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about an hour away.  Nick Clarke was due in on another flight 30mins later, perfect - a chance to stretch my legs and then we'd be on our way.  Well, except Nick's flight was a little delayed but this did mean that he managed to find the MIA Jorge Maravilia along the way, along with Scott Jaime's bag, and Scott was found wandering around the airport looking for us.  So by just after 1am out merry little ultra band was fully assembled complete with all luggage and high tailing it off to Wintergreen, all pretty tired after a long journey from our various locations.  Scott had managed to shop for groceries so I begged a bottle of water and Nick stole some food.  Let's just say that the food services at tiny Charlottesville airport are not all that extensive at 1am.  There are 2 vending machines.

Fortunately Friday was a pretty chilled day - packet pick up, little interviews, pre-race briefing etc and lots of time to chill, nap and get ready for race day.  By part way through the day I had figured that I was one of the guys for the weekend - I knew Ragan Petrie, the 2011 winner, would be arriving later in the evening but otherwise the womens field was looking pretty thin on the ground.  Various women who had planned to race had had to drop out due to injuries or other race commitments which was too bad.  This, combined with Bryon of iRunFar asking me about the lack of women, got me thinking that I'd simply have to push my own pace and also try to pick my way up the mens field to keep focused on racing rather than just running.

Early race morning I was escorted by VIP chaffeur service (aka the trunk of David Horton's car) to the race start.  The elites were to start 15 minutes before the rest of the field so there was no crush to get to the front of the pack; at about 90 seconds before race start Montrail teamie Max King suggested we should line up, we wandered over and with a few final words from RD Gill we were off.

The 7am start.  Photo- iRunFar

The lead pack of guys hung together a little but soon they were whizzing down a rocky trail ahead of me.  There were a couple of local guys around me as we continued down the technical descent and I hoped they might provide some company for the early miles.  The downhill was fun though I was already doubting my shoe choice (Montrail Fairhavens) as I slipped a little on the wet leaves and rocks. In reality they performed great as the day progressed with about 50% of the course being tarmac and the trails being drier as the sun came out.  As we hit the stream at the bottom of the descent Scott and I hoped through and both my feet got soaked, oh well - it's a trail race :)  But immediately after we didn't know whether to turn right or left until we saw the lead pack of 20 or so men coming back towards us.  Oops, guess we had been a little too fast for the vollies who had just come out to say this was a turn around point and back up the hill we were to head.  As ever, I was first to switch into a power hike but still kept up with the men who were running next to me and was encouraged to see Ian Sharman (who ended up in an impressive 4th) power hiking too.

We soon came onto the first road section of the day and it seemed like it was going to be a very lonely day.  I had ended up in no-mans and no-womans land which I never find too bad on a trail but on rolling country roads it seemed decidedly lonely.  I appreciated the short conversation with Meghan of iRunFar as she drove by, and felt a little like Kilian on his start at WS100 where he was seen looking around for buddies to run with.  Don't get me wrong, I run plenty on my own but it was going to be a long day if it was all like this, and hard to push myself too.

But I needn't have worried, David Horton had appointed himself as my much appreciated crew and would whizz by on his bike and be at every aid station throughout the day.  This is pretty much like having Paula Radcliffe showing up to help you at a marathon; thank you so much Doc. Horton, you made my day so much more fun (and fast)!  The aid stations were never more than 10km apart which was great to break the race up, especially as my hamstrings began to hurt after only about 35km - hmm, this might be a long and not overly comfortable day so aid station encouragement would definitely help pull me through, and the locals were great.

The course is in many ways an out an back with a few deviations, but it turns around after a 4 mile section on the Dragon's Back trail.  This was probably my favourite section of the day as it rolled along a forested ridge, gentle ups and downs and then the train of lead men came charging towards me.  It was great to see Max (King) and Sage (Canaday) in top 2 after an earlier hiccup of going off course (they would end in 1st and 2nd, both in their debut at the 100km distance).  I kept count of the men as they zipped by and calculated that I was in 12th overall, and when I saw Ragan I figured she was about 20 to 25 minutes behind me.  Although this put me in a comfortable lead I knew I still couldn't totally falter as there was still time for her to catch me if I did.

Pretty fall colours in Virginia.  Photo -

Back onto the road and my stomach didn't feel great.  David had driven past me before calling something out of his car window about french fries.  To be honest this had totally confused me as I had no idea where he was going to buy them from on this rural road.  But there he was at the aid station with some french fries and ketchup!  I ungratefully said I was feeling a little queasy and didn't want any.  So instead, down another gel went and not too happily off onto the trail I continued.  Little Miss Grouchy.

Thankfully I was then buoyed along by Alistair who had gone off track and had just got himself back en route.  Another Brit living in Canada it was good to chat (he'd also just run CCC 4 weeks prior) and he helped pull me up the little inclines that I might have otherwise have been tempted to walk.  As we hit the next aid station I was all cheery and moved quickly back onto the road, keen to catch and overtake Alistair who had remarked that I was faster than him on roads.  Little  Miss Sunshine was back.  At the same time I passed Shinji Nakadai from Japan, the 2010 World 100km Champion (same year as I won) and I was impressed with his perseverance given he'd never run on trails and was clearly used to much flatter roads.  It was great to see him come in 10th overall with a smile on his face.

Now we had about 15km to go and it was a case of hunkering down, counting down the kms one by one on my Garmin and knowing that soon the hamstrings could stop yelping at me.  With 4 miles to go there was an awesome road descent and I pin-wheeled my arms round to get me going as fast as I could.  Well, I'd saved my quads by going a little easier on the road descents earlier on so now I might as well trash them :)   I like to think that John Hill, my coach at VFAC, who regularly shakes his head at my ultra exploits would be smiling that he's taught me how to pin-wheel my arms and now I was using his tips in an ultra :)  I then hit what has to be the most brutal race course finish I've ever had the pain to run; 3 miles uphill on a road with a reasonable flow of traffic.  It was downright disgusting.  There was no way I was running most of this so I focused on powerhiking to keep below a 10min km (woo hoo - speedy!) and when I hit the slightly flatter sections I hit a tin-man shuffle (as inspired by my training buddy Mike who recently perfected the tin-man shuffle at his debut Ironman).

Soon the final few hundred metres of wheeeee-downhill to the finish and I pulled a Mr. Marvellous (patented by the one and only Jorge Maravilla) to jump over the finish line.  9:04:19.  Good for 1st female and 8th overall.

Thanks guys for an awesome weekend, but next time I hope a few more ladies come join the party.  It's a lot of fun.
At the finish with Dave Mackey.  Photo -
Happy to be done another fun day on the trails & road.  Photo -

September 5, 2012

Petzl NAO review and other CCC gear.

I'm the first to admit that I am the sort of runner than pretty much likes to lace up my shoes and just head out the door.  I am definitely not one of those people who pours over maps looking for new routes, nor do I spend hours analysing race courses in advance or checking out the latest gear, but one thing that was obvious with CCC 100km is I was going to have to do at least some sort of logistical and gear prep.  UTMB and CCC both have the same, reasonably extensive, mandatory gear list (which can be found on their website).  At first the list looks a little over the top but as we were to find this year, the weather can be pretty rough and you might well end up using a fair chunk of your gear.  The race organisers reminded us that the mandatory gear list was the minimum required and that some racers may well choose to take extra/ more items.  That said, I think anyone would be looking to take what they need yet keep their pack as light and compact as possible.  Here's a few of the items I took and why:

All geared up at the finish line.  Credit - Endurance Magazine

- Waterproof jacket with hood.  I chose the Mountain Hardwear (MHW) Quasar Pullover.  7.8oz, no fuss, no frills but 100% breathable and waterproof.  I wore this for 80% of the race and was very comfortable in in.

MHW Quasar Pullover

- Waterproof pants.  I took the MHW Epic Pant.  I didn't wear these at all but did consider putting them on at one point and definitely if I had slowed down they would have been needed.  7.8oz, light and unrestrictive - I would have been happy to run in them had I needed to.

- Waterproof gloves.  I laughed when I saw this on the list and so got the Mountain Hardwear Epic glove thinking that there was no way I would wear these but ended up wearing them for most of the race. Definitely a bulkier glove than I'd normally wear for running but if you are out there for a long time and it is raining heavily then waterproof gloves are essential.  I was glad too to have a lighter glove (such as the MHW Butter Liner) to wear when it wasn't so cold/ rainy as they were better for still being able to open gels etc.

MHW Epic Glove

- Tights or combination of tights/ long socks to cover whole of leg.  Again, I anticipated running in shorts so just got some light tights at a thrift store to check off the mandatory gear requirements but ended up wearing them for the entire race (best $3 I've ever spent at the Salvation Army!)  If I run CCC again I'd likely wear calf compression sleeves and 3/4 tights.

- Long sleeved shirt.  I wore he MHW Wicked Lite Long Sleeve under my waterproof jacket for most of the race and I had it in white so had it got warm I'd have been happy running in it for a while even in the sun.  For future, if I had crew again I'd have spares of this in case I got rained on and wanted to change mid-race.

- Minimum 1 litre of water plus a 150ml min cup (not all aid stations provide cups).  I used my usual bladder and 1 litre was enough as aid stations are quite frequent, though more might be needed on a hot day.  For the cup, you can easily buy one at the expo or buy a small drinks carton and cut the top off!

- Bandage.  Ok, this was the one piece of gear that seemed a little excessive - but spend $4 at the drugs store as your gear can get randomly checked mid race so no point in getting a time penalty for not bringing something like this.

- Space blanket.  Run a road marathon, it's good training and you'll get a space blanket for free at the finish line :)

- Race bib elastic.  You must have your bib number on your front, unfolded and not pinned to your shorts/ tights.  As it's very likely you will be changing shirts/ jackets you don't want to pin your bib to your shirt so I got a alice band hair elastic and wore the bib pinned to this around my waist!

- Poles.  If you use poles you have to carry them with you for the entire race.  I chose not to use them at all and was happy with this decision for the 100km CCC.  For UTMB 168km I might well get light poles as much for the steep descents as the climbs.  Some sections of the course can also get very muddy so I can see the benefit of poles there (but falling on your butt can also be a fun part of any trail race too!)  It seemed that most racers who had poles were able to fix them to their pack which I think would be useful as there are decent stretches of the course where poles really are not required and personally i think I'd find them annoying.

- Warm hat and cap/ bandana.  Go Euro and get a Buff as they are multi functional so useful in both the cold and the heat.  For the warm hat (which I wore a lot as it's easy way to regulate heat by taking hat on/ off) I wore one similar to the MHW Effusion Dome.  I chose not to wear a cap as I feel they block your vision especially in forested trails, plus can be a hassle when you are wearing a headlamp....

- 2 headlamps with spare batteries.  Yep - our race started at 10am and we had to carry 2 headlamps even though sunset was not until about 8.30pm!  Again, seemed a little over the top but in the need to check all the gear boxes I carried 2 x Petzl e-Lites for the majority of the race.  The e-Lites weigh in at just 27g each and incorporate a whistle (also on the mandatory list!) so were perfect.  Once I got to one of the later aid stations I then switched one of the e-Lites for my Petzl NAO which was the headlamp I actually used in the dark (but is considerably heavier so I was glad not to carry it all day).
Petzl e-Lite - 27g

Petzl NAO review

Petzl were kind enough to provide me with a NAO for CCC.    The first thing to say is that the NAO is RIDICULOUSLY bright.  On the several occasions I have run with others when using it there have always been comments about how bright it is.  It is pretty much like having a mini-lighthouse attached to your head.  No joke.  I am self confessed bad runner in the dark, especially on trails I don't know I'll tip toe along picking my way along the trail slowly.  But with the Petzl NAO I can honestly say I don't think I run significantly slower than I would in day light, so bright is the light.  This obviously becomes more important the more of your race will be in the dark (UTMB compared to CCC).  It was great to run with confidence that (a) I was going the right way and (b) I was not going to trip over any rocks or roots.

Petzl NAO
The NAO is a reactive light meaning that it gauges the ambient lighting and adjusts the power and focus of the beam accordingly i.e. the darker it is the brighter it will shine, or the more closely you focus the light on something (such as a map) it channels the beam in.  As such, the power of the rechargeable lithium battery isn't wasted unnecessarily.  The NAO can in theory last a full night of running but in order to do so it should be focused on the ground just ahead rather than up and into the dark sky.  For CCC this wasn't really a concern and when it was first dark I set the light on the lower of the two settings to ensure conservative battery use, and then when it got darker I clicked it up to the brighter of the two settings.  This was super easy to do as I ran along.

The NAO has a rechargeable battery but can also be used with AAA batteries in an emergency, or spare lithium batteries can be added.  This is definitely a big bonus as otherwise the unit would be rather restrictive if you were to use it for running an entire night (when batteries are very likely to need to be changed) or on a backpacking trip where you might not always have access to electricity to charge the battery.

The fit of the headlamp was great.  At 187g the NAO definitely is not light weight so I had some concern that it might move around a little but have not noticed this at all, and the straps are easy and quick to adjust if needed.

Overall the NAO is an excellent lighting system for night trail running.  If you are more of a techno-whizz you can download your own personalised settings onto the light which will invariably make it even more useful and perform better.  I can see that I will now have trouble using any other headlamp as I've been spoilt with my mini-lighthouse.  It's not a light that I'd want to slip into my pack 'just in case I end out after dark' (for that I have the e-Lites) but if I know for sure that I am going to be out in the dark the NAO will be my light of choice because of it's bright beam, smart battery use and snug fit.

September 4, 2012

Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix 100km

Well what did we see see see at CCC?  Well we saw saw saw lots of rain rain rain and snow snow snow and fog fog fog, so all in all we didn't get to see too much of the scenery.

This past weekend I ran the 100km (well it turned out to be a little over 90km) CCC race in the Mont Blanc region of the Alps.  The race is one big loop which climbs up and down continuously as it passes from it's start in the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur onto and through the cute Swiss town of Champex and then finishing up in the cobbled streets of the big brash French alpine resort of Chamonix, where Mont Blanc looms ever present over the buzzing tourist town with traditional wooden chalets as well as the traditional concrete sprawl of French alpine resorts.  The CCC is basically a mini version of the 168km UTMB which both starts and ends in Chamonix, and definitely there is some feeling of being a half marathoner at a big city marathon...well until you start actually racing that is and then the half marathon seems more than enough to bite off and chew.  The CCC course is normally 100km with 5900m of ascent (and similar of descent) but this year due to bad weather a few of the higher trails were cut out of the race route so we ran a mere 90 something km and climbed 'only' about 4900m.  It was enough for me, as by the climb up Bovine at about the half way mark my quads were already screaming at me to stop climbing.  Thankfully I later heard that lots of racers find this technical climb one of the hardest, so it wasn't just me and by the next climb I seemed to have got my legs back and was moving with more ease.  But I still definitely need to work on my climbing if I want to become a real mountain runner...

The biggest change for me in a race like CCC compared to most races I do is that I hiked a LOT.  I mean I hiked pretty much all of the uphills, and so did all of the other runners around me.  Sure, there are some runnable uphills but most of the ascents are steep enough that power hiking is the most effective way to get up to the top as fast as possible.  A little odd and took some getting used to mentally for a roadie like me.  Normally superb summit views would justify the climbs but as already mentioned, the weather was shall we say 'alpine' so views were limited.  In fact at one point I felt like I was skiing in a white out; snow was blizarding into my face and settling on the ground, the wind gusted and well, the outlook at around was just cloudy white.  It was like hiking in a snow globe.  I'm not sure even if it had been sunny that I would have really appreciated the views anyway, it was often a case of head down and power up the hill, then enjoy some traversing along the mountain edge before rolling down back to the valley, which required just as much focus on the trail immediately ahead as going up had.  But in this weather there were certainly no pauses to try see the view as it was just too cold.  I had rolled my eyes when I saw that waterproof gloves were part of the mandatory gear, but in fact I ended up wearing my waterproof ski gloves for at least 50% of the race, and in the final stages when it POURED with rain I decided for the sake of my fingers not to take any gels, my fingers would just get too cold if I took my gloves off for even a minute.  Ok, at this point I was running with an Irishman in shorts who jokingly (I think) said that I needed to toughen up a bit, but to be fair my attire of tights, long sleeve shirt, waterproof jacket and gloves and a warm hat was more typical of the average racers than was Irish Barry's shorts and minimalist shoes.

Overall the race seemed more of an adventure and a challenge to complete the course than a real race.  Yes, I ran good chunks up to about the half way point with Maude Gaubert so certainly I was not unchallenged for the win, but it was other things (such as keeping warm, or making it to the top of the next climb) that often seemed more pressing in my mind during the day, than getting to the finish line first.  But once Barry and I were onto the final 8km or so we settled into the rolling terrain and picked up another buddy (an Austrian guy) for the final few speedy kms to the finish.  Ok, 4:45 per km might not seem speedy but in in a 90km race that we finished in 11h17 it seemed like we were downright flying!

All in all a very fun day.  I'm not sure if it was what I imagined racing in the Alps would be like, I think I had envisioned more crowds cheering us along in the sunshine and cows happily munching on alpine meadow flowers, their cowbells clanging.  As it was, the volunteers were amazing and locals did cheer us on but definitely the tone seemed muted by the weather, and likely that although the CCC is an amazing challenge it is definitely the 2nd race to the big banner event of UTMB.  As for the cows?  Well they looked downright grumpy that they'd got kicked out of their alpine cow shed so it could be used for an aid station serving soup and coke for the day.  They didn't smile, in fact they looked a little scary.

Will I race UTMB next year?  It's a very tempting thought.  It is definitely on my list of 'possible' races (along with a whole host of others).  Whilst I realize that it is a whole lot further than CCC the terrain now seems less intimidating than before now I have seen what it is all about.  It's then just matter of doing the same for 2+ times longer :)

A few pics below of hiking 3 days before the race.  Too bad the weather didn't hold!