Dusk ’till Dawn ultramarathon – October 2013


My knee hurts.

A bizarre looking outfit

For years I’ve been able to happily (and probably smugly) reply in the negative to the stock non-runner question of “oh no, I couldn’t do that, don’t your knees hurt”.

Not today. My left one really flippin hurts. Walking downstairs is a major expedition.

I’m sure it’s completely related to spraining my ankle recently, which in turn meant that I hadn’t really done any training for this race over the past two months. I also hadn’t really thought that much about it until a couple of days before, when I started to get a decent case of “I’m about to run quite far, up hills, in the dark, and rain” nerves.

The day itself started quite nicely, taking my daughter trampolining first thing followed by a large breakfast.  Hopping on the train to Sheffield laden with food was also a breeze.

The next few hours were mostly fraught however, the train batteries were apparently flat (full marks for a new excuse), I missed my connection and made it to Losehill Hall just in time to get kit checked, fill my water bottle up and get to the start line.

The start line

The start line

Once we were off I felt thankfully relaxed, and enjoyed the last bit of daylight as we headed up to the first checkpoint.
From here to Cave Dale is all a bit of a mystery, and the GPS wasn’t helping (it’s a pure maze of tiny paths, more stiles than you’ve ever seen, a railway line, a main road, some fields and a river).

The rain didn’t really start till after CP3, but when it did it properly meant it, as did the wind. At this point I was keeping pace with a friendly chap and we wisely decided to put everything on, waterproofs, hat, gloves – the lot.

We later heard that someone had succumbed to hypothermia around this time, and I’m not surprised, it was really rather nasty.

A quick stop at CP4 (Earl Sterndale) for a cup of tea and rice pudding, then straight up a hill (through someone’s rockery) and onwards.

My plan for this race was to not obsess about splits or projected finish time, spend very little time at checkpoints, run briskly,
avoid coke (to see if that helped sleeping afterwards), and to enjoy myself.

I barely looked at my watch, and only registered the milage when passing a CP and noticing the mile marker on the map.

Arriving at the cat and fiddle tested the resolve, last year it snowed here, and I started to freeze over as I filled my water at the outside station. This year however everything was indoors, we burst into a toasty room, were plied with all manner of treats and I spotted a few pints lined up on the bar. Sadly we moved on after a snatched tea and flapjack. No sitting down.

From here on the weather improved (apart from the mandatory fog over shining tor) and it was a steady run all the way down to Taxal where the encouraging and always smiling Wendy was handing out jelly babies and taking numbers.

A few soggy fields and some steep (but paved) hills took us to the final manned checkpoint at Cracken Edge, and burgers. This was the only hot food CP and had been the matter of some debate for several hours. The idea was great, but I just didn’t have nearly enough saliva. Everyone else seemed very happy with the setup, but I made do with a flapjack and water.

A mere half marathon to go, and by far the most technical part of the course; lots of hills, tracks, mud, rocks (and a river). I’d remembered this from last year, which helped hugely. I’d kept plenty in reserve so was very happy trundling along and trying to stay upright.

On a particularly slippery descent we came round a corner to find someone on their back looking very unhappy. He sat up and said he’d fallen and hit his head. We stayed with him until he was ok to carry on, though did suggest several times that he go back up the course to the manned CP.

The grim sweeper

The grim sweeper

Made it back to base in a whisker over 12 hours and in joint 16th (of 95 starters). Bit slower than last year but I put that down to the mud and general slipperiness.

Cracking night out, had lots of interesting chats, the volunteers were spot on (filling water bottles, plying food, friendly banter), and of course Richard and Wendy being on top of, and thinking of, everything made the whole thing feel very slick and well organised.

My knee still hurts, I hope no one asks about it, perhaps I’ll deny being a runner until it’s better.

Race website


CCC (Courmayer, Champex, Chamonix – 100K ultra)

Snap, crackle, pop
The first thing everyone asked me was “did you hear a noise when you fell over?”
I couldn’t tell whether I had or hadn’t. I’d heard lots of noise alright, swearing, the crunching of gravel, ringing in my ears, parakeets in the trees, but nothing that sounded especially like ligaments popping off a bone, or a tenon being torn.
Then again, what do those things sound like? I suppose you’d know if you heard them.
To rewind slightly, I was doing a final set of hill repeats in Dulwich woods in preparation for the CCC on the Friday. A tiny lapse of concentration on a sharp and slippery corner saw my left foot slide under me resulting in a classic hill running injury.
Lots of rest, ice, compression (and as much elevation as can be found while sitting at a desk all day, i.e none) was employed once I’d stopped feeling sick and faint.
This was closely followed by two separate physio visits, a large dose of internal fretting, lots of time spent persuading family and friends that pulling out of the race wasn’t necessary – it was just a flesh wound.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t quietly wondering whether I was doing the right thing by going anyway.
Sleeping’s cheating
I digress, this is supposed to be about the race.
The first thing that struck me after arrival in Chamonix was the sheer scale of the races taking part that week (TDS, CCC, UTMB, PTL).  I think there were over 6,000 runners covering hundreds of miles in the mountains.
Kit checks, drop bags, aid stations, check points, transport, communications. The list is long and sounds like a lot of work.  It might cost a lot to enter, but the organisation is absolutely first rate.
One slight niggle, but purely selfish.  I was kit checked and declared fit to race before 2pm on Friday afternoon (registration finished at 7pm), but somehow was allocated a 6am coach ticket for the transfer to the start line (later registrants got later buses),  a potential two whole hours in bed lost!
Luckily the cafe proprietors of Courmayer saw sufficient opportunity in the hordes of runners and opened early, so several coffees and chocolate croissants kept me quiet until it was time to get to the start line.
Run the downhills man!
Setting off in the third wave meant that I had a lot of catching up to do – sprained ankle or not – but the narrow trails made this much harder than anticipated.
Most of the route, especially for the first 50K, were fast and runnable, but because of the number of people it was very hard to overtake.
The best technique seemed to be to leap at every slight widening of the path – which really meant running on much more treacherous terrain – and putting in harder busts of energy and speed than were really ideal.
Being in an amazing beautiful setting with mountains and glaciers in every direction was amazing.  It was just a shame that my inner monologue was cursing the slowcoaches ahead of me who were walking everything.
I don’t mind walking uphill, I’m no Charlie Sharpe after all, but flats and downhills?  Seriously?
The aid stations were approximately every 10K, and were reliably stocked with simple but effective mountain fare with a few modern extras.
At first I was suspicious of the piles of saucisson and cheese with bowls of noodle soup, but quickly realised that they were packed with good slow release energy.
The usual piles of bananas, flapjacks and other sweet treats were present, as well as a stack of Overstim produce, which went down better than expected (by 80K I was eating pretty much anything to be fair).
Heading up a hill towards Champex-lac for the 50K mark I remember feeling distinctly “odd”, and wasn’t entirely sure what I was lacking or had had too much of.  Turns out I was hungry and dehydrated, no real surprise after a day out in the sun.
Hot pasta and bolognese sauce at the next aid station was well received, though I was glad not to be part of the chaos that surrounded all the supporters seeking their runners.
Micks sticks
As soon as we started other peoples running sticks were annoying me, and I saw a couple of people get whacked as the runner in front failed to get purchase.
Around the 70K point I was flagging a bit and my ankle started to ache.  Out came my borrowed poles and the stability they gave was a real surprise (once I’d mucked around getting them to the right length – whilst running obviously).
After this I stormed up the remaining mountains, then watched in dismay as everyone came pounding past my careful self as I gingerly descended with “concentrate lats, concentrate” repeating in my head.  I wasn’t sure I could face rolling my ankle again, and I certainly didn’t fancy explaining to the girls in my life that my reccy had turned into a full on race, and I now needed a stick to walk.
Sitting down
A 10 minute rest at Vallorcine with a bowl soup seemed the only sensible thing to do before tackling the final mountain, and the long descent into Chamonix.  The long (long long) line of headtorches stretching up and over the really rather large looking mountain above didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, maybe it was the thought of a beer and something cold to soak my feet in that spurred me on.
Fed up
The route down the mountain started off fairly technical, and after about 6K joined a ski run before lurching into some soft trails in the trees.  Eventually my patience wore off and the mounting frustration of seeing tens of people pass me got too much and I picked up the pace and legged it to the finish line.
Didn’t quite get there in under 23 hours, but at 3 1/2 hours under the cut off, and in position 587 of 1900 wasn’t too shabby a result.
A great course, fantastic organisation and support – every village and town had locals out cheering and shouting “bravo Luke” – and nearly always someone to chat to…why wouldn’t I go back and have another go!

12 Labours of Hercules ultra marathon


Race report on the 12 Labours of Hercules ultra marathon20130726-141927.jpg

A thick head and sleeping through the alarm gave the morning a more frantic start than planned.

Peanut butter, honey and banana sandwiches and a slightly experimental isotonic mixture (fresh lemon and lime juice, salt and bicarbonate of soda) were thrown in a bag and dashed over the moor to Castleton in Derbyshire.

Nerves had been increasingly bothersome, probably because 78 miles and 17,000 ft were significantly further and higher than I’d ever run, so when Richard said “go” I felt relief more than anything else.
Hill training had been fairly elusive over the past few months, south London hardly being famous for lofty peaks. Loping straight up a hill for labour 9, I caught the leader of this small group (I chose this one to start as most were doing others) about 3 miles in and had a very pleasant chat before leaving him behind near the top of the final ascent.

Everything was going very well, I felt like I had plenty in the tank and it wasn’t too hot. So it was back to base and straight back out.

After about 8 hours my big toes were complaining about the rocky descent from Mam Tor, a quick bit of toenail trimming and tightening of laces eased the pressure but the damage had been done. It’s taken 10 months to grow these nails back!
Half way through labour 6 I started feeling very weak, which worried me as there was no warning at all and there were over 40 miles still to go. A good dunk in the river at Edale, followed by 20 minutes sitting in a field emptying my bumbag of calories chased down with another half litre of water and I was off, fully charged.

I learnt my lesson and took full advantage of pizza, samosas plus my own bag of food at each visit back to base, often forced down. Hills need fuel!

Labour 11 was 5.5 mile out and back along the Limestone Way, with a burger served by a friendly group of cadets half way. I was joined by a friendly scouser doing his first ultra, who switched from walking to running as I overtook him – nothing like a bit of competition to get the legs going! It was dark by the time I got back to base, 12 hours in, which made the descent of Cave Dale more hairy than necessary.
I had a feeling labour 7 was going to be annoying so thought I’d get it done next. My hunch wasn’t wrong and I took several wrong turns and an unexpected (but correct) route through a cement factory before I powered past two others to the 600ft checkpoint.

Back at base I had another southern fried chicken wrap, loads of coke and dashed out on labour 12. This was billed as mostly road and easy to navigate, both not entirely true! There was a real kicker of a hill about quarter of the way too. I was back at base 3 1/4 hours later for my longest half marathon time ever!

Quick fuel and coke top up then out for my penultimate leg, 2.5 miles up Win Hill and back. By this point sore feet and more solitude than anticipated left me power walking most of this, lashing rain at the peak didn’t help.

The last labour was a cheeky 4 miler, on road, with a pretty descent ascent. This was a great way to finish and I got up to a satisfying clip on the way back to finish in 5th place in 22 1/4 hours.

I expected to be broken by the end, but apart from losing a couple of toenails, two small blisters and minor dehydration (despite drinking over 20 litres of water), I felt in great shape. Swimming, cycling, speed work and plenty of core and upper body sessions had kept everything working well with none of the aches and pains I’d previously considered a normal part of long distance running.

As expected Richard and Wendy were super organised, incredibly encouraging and downright nice all the way through. I tip my hat to another great race and I’ll definitely be doing more beyondmarathon events (already signed up for the October dusk till dawn!).

Next up is the CCC round Mont Blanc at the end of August.