UTMB – 2017

It is almost 4pm on Saturday and I have just arrived at Arnouvaz in  Valle d’Aosta in the Italian Alps. This is the 95.6km checkpoint in the UTMB. The last few muddy miles of descent have left me reeling. I know what is coming next – the ascent to the highest point on the course, Grand Col Ferrett at 2,529 meters. I have no idea how on earth I am going to manage it. As I walk into the Checkpoint, there is a desk marked as “abandonment”. I want more than anything to walk over to that desk, hand over my race number and declare “Oui, oui, oui, abandonment, s’il vous plait”. Within minutes I would be sitting, dozing on a warm minibus waiting to taken back to Chamonix. But something inside won’t let me do that. I may be cold, fatigued and achy but I’m not injured and I still have a reasonable margin on the cut offs. My family and I have sacrificed so much to put me on the start line of this race and to give me the opportunity to achieve my dream of completing the UTMB. Would I really throw that away now because I’m a bit cold and a bit sleepy?

Part one – France to Italy

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A little over 22 hours earlier and I’m standing on the start line of the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc in Chamonix. This race has been joint top of my bucket list (along with Western States 100) for several years. Standing alongside 2,500 runners, I reflect back on the last few years of running and how each of my successes and failures has led me here to this. Every successful race has boosted my confidence enough to make me believe that I am good enough to be on the start line of the UTMB, and every failure has taught me a valuable lesson that I would need to reach the finish line.

Above us, the flags from the dozens of nations competing flutter gently in the alpine breeze like prayer flags on Everest.  A massive sense of excitement and expectation sits over the crowd; runners and spectators alike. My mouth is dry from the nerves and I take a swig of water from bottle. It doesn’t help in the slightest.

As has become tradition, the race always begins with Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise”. A hush falls over the waiting runners as the first few eerie bars of the piece drift from the speakers. Soon, the air is filled with the sound of Gregorian chanting. Just as Vangelis’ trademark synthesizers kick in and the track reaches its soaring crescendo, someone shouts “Go!” and we are off.

Running through the streets of Chamonix, I high-five as many of the cheering spectators as I can. The inspiring music and the cheers from the crowd form a heady mix and I know this moment will be one that I won’t ever forget. I wave to Caroline and the boys who are waiting in the crowd a few hundred metres from the start. All being well, I will see them the following day in Courmayeur.

The pace in these early couple of miles is frantic – probably close to 7 min/miles. For me this is suicide pace for anything other than a Saturday morning parkrun, let along a 100+ mile mountain race. However, I’m not too concerned for now.

I’d thought a lot about strategy prior to this race. The UTMB is 104 or so miles long, beginning in Chamonix and traversing the French, Italian and Swiss alps before returning to France and finishing in Chamonix.

UTMB map

I knew that (apart from injuries or something unforseen) there was only one thing that could realistically prevent me finishing this race and that was the cut-offs. There is an overall 46 hour limit to compete the 104 miles and there are many points along the way that have intermediate cut-off times. Miss these, even by a few seconds, and my race would be over. Being familiar with my own strengths and weaknesses as a runner, I knew my best bet would be to go out hard, try to build as much of a buffer against the early cut-offs as possible and then just hope that buffer is enough later on to get me to the finish when things get tough. The strategy is not without risk as, of course, there is the possibility of blow-ups late on, but it is the strategy that I have chosen and it’s what I’m going with.

The air is cool and at present, fairly ideal for running. Over the past week, there has been all kinds of speculation about the weather and whether any amendments to the “normal” route would be needed. The forecast is for snow and -9 degree temperatures above 2,000 metres. Eventually the organisers confirmed it would be the normal route but with two small amendments. I believe the difference is negligible in terms of actual distance but it is a little less climbing. The quid pro quo is that we have 30 minutes less in which to complete the route.

As we leave the paved streets of Chamonix behind, the advice of me good friend, Tim, rings in my ears “push up as far as you can until you see runners who are well out of your league”. I take a look around me; mission accomplished as far as that goes. The first few miles of the race are the only significant flat part of the course and I intend to make the most of them. I know that I will be hemorraging time later on the climbs. I may have a chance to make some time back on the descents depending on how technical they are – but that means that anything approximating “flat” needs to be run and run at a good pace, or I will be timed out of the race for sure.

Of course, this section is only “flat” by alpine standards and would be “undulating” in the UK. We are now on green woody trails and I’m surprised by how far spectators have come out from town to cheer us on. Below to my left, L’Arve continues its tumultuous flow through the Chamonix valley completely oblivious to the runners alongside it. For some reason the sound of the river reminds me of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”, her great tribute to travelling and adventure. But I’m in an adventure of my own here. I look up, surprised by the deep sound of an Alphorn being played by a spectator in traditional alpine dress. It is in stark contrast to the tinkling sound of the cowbells that would be our almost constant companion throughout the race.

The course continues along narrow wooded trails before opening out onto a wide road into Les Houches. For a moment, the running on the wide roads with so many runners around takes me back to Comrades in South Africa. Comrades is an amazing experience but this race is something else again. Running through the centre of Les Houches, we pass our first drinks station. The fast start meant that I’d got through one of my water bottles which I refill here and sip some coke before continuing on my way. Before long, we leave the road and began the first real climb of the course.

UTMB profile

In my mind, UTMB is characterised by ten big climbs, with a cumulative elevation gain/loss of 10,000 metres. This is more than going from sea-level to the summit of Everest and back down again, whilst running four back to back marathons. I decide this analogy isn’t helping me. Instead I think of the race as 10 ascents of Snowdon. A few weeks previously I’d spent a weekend training on Snowdon, ascending and descending via the six main routes. Everest feels out of my league, but 10 Snowdons somehow feels more attainable!

This first climb up to Le Delevret is 820 metres of ascent, but on fresh legs feels reasonable. There is a crowd of us and the air is filed with the clickety sounds of hiking poles on the rocky terrain. My poles are still firmly attached to my back as I’d decided in advance to attempt the first climb without them. Instead, I lean forward, put my hands on my knees and push up the mountain.

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This is a ski resort in winter and we climb beneath the chair lifts that would transport the skiers up the mountain in the winter. Before long, the incline begins to flatten. Could we be at the top? I round a corner and the bottom of another chair lift comes into view – nowhere near the top yet! As we ascend higher the fog and darkness begin to envelop us. On finally reaching the top, visibility is severely reduced. I get my headtorch out. However, in the thick fog, the beam of light only serves to light up the air particles and I can see very little beyond a metre or two.

The descent is initially on steep, wet grassy banks which I tackle tentatively at first. My fellow runners are flying past me on both sides and I decide to throw caution to the wind and pick up my pace. Before long, the steep grassy section ends and we are on much more runnable switch backs leading down into St Gervais. We are out of the clouds now and the lights of the town sparkle below us. We can hear the sounds of a street party in full swing below us, still a good couple of miles away.

Running into St Gervais, the roads are thronged with people who have come out to cheers us on. Cries of “allez, allez, allez” echo all along. Here is my first experience of a UTMB checkpoint. My usual experience of an ultra marathon aid station in the UK is a picnic table with a few sandwiches and cups of coke lined up. This is more like a food festival or farmers’ market with dozens of stalls set up offering all kinds of food and drink. I feel the first hunger pangs so I take some bread, cheese, salami and chocolate to eat as I walk out of St Gervais. A key part of successfully completing this race will be to continually eat throughout, ensuring there is a steady stream of calories going in.

The next section is undulating but reasonably runnable. I therefore stick to my strategy and run as much as I possibly can, only slowing to a hike for significant climbs. The food I ate at the last checkpoint isn’t sitting well and I start to feel slightly queasy. The thought of more cheese and salami during the race makes me feel ill – I will have a look what else is on offer at the next checkpoint. Some runners seem to be really suffering as I pass a few people throwing up by the side of the trail. Just another Friday night like back home in London town!

Les Contamines is the first major checkpoint where runners can have access to their crews. It’s also the first cut-off point along the race. The time is now 22.41 and the cut-off here is 00.30 – so far , so good. The Aid Station is set up as a massive marquee. Inside, it is absolutely rammed with runners and supporters. I find a spot on a bench to sit for a few minutes, before continuing on my way.

It has begun to rain and I put my jacket on, not wanting to get wet and cold so soon. Next is the first real test of the race; a climb of 1,342m up to Croix Du Bonhomme. As I begin the climb, I’m surprised again by the number of spectators who have also hiked up to watch. Bonfires, candles and oil lamps light the early section of this climb giving it a magical atmosphere, like something from Hans Christian Anderson. The flames hiss and splutter in the rain. Somewhere here out in the darkness is the baroque chapel of Notre Dame de la Gorge. However, it’s pitch dark and I can’t see it. Sightseeing will have to wait for another day.

We continue up the mountain. Far above me I can see the lights of the next checkpoint, La Balme. It doesn’t look very far but takes a while to get there. The main checkpoint is in a barn. My appetite for any more cheese and salami has completely gone but I gratefully slurp down two bowls of salty noodle soup. This would turn out to be a staple of every checkpoint and is probably the best thing I’ve ever had during a race. I take some chocolate to eat on the mountain and leave the checkpoint. “Ca va?” esquires one of the mountain rescue men who are ever present at the mountain checkpoints. I recall enough schoolboy French to be able to respond adequately and then continue on my way. Having a checkpoint half-way up the mountain really helps break the climb up.

However, whilst the first half passed quickly, the second half goes on and on. Several times, the trail begins to flatten and descend making me think that I’d reached the top, only for it to begin ascending again. I eventually forget about actually ever reaching the top and think of other things. At the top of the mountain, it is misty and cold and there is snow in the air. As we begin the descent, there is a volunteer checking our numbers and performing random checks of our compulsory kit. Thankfully (since it’s so cold) I’m not stopped and I continue along my way. The first part of the descent is on rutted, slippery  grassy slopes. Try as I might, I can’t get any momentum going here which is frustrating as other runners are flying past. However, like the last descent, the track soon turns to runnable switch backs opening up the valley below us. I can see and hear the next checkpoint at Les Chapieux from a long way away.

On entering the checkpoint, the race officials are checking we all have a phone with us (part of the mandatory kit). I show them my phone and am ushered into the checkpoint.

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I’m now 50km into the race, one marathon done and three more to go. I sit and enjoy some more of the noodle soup. Just as I’m about to leave, I hear someone call my name. It’s Sam Robson. I’d met Sam a couple of days previously as he has been staying in Les Contamines with my friend Tim. Sam is a far better runner than me and the fact that we are together definitely confirms the idea in my mind that I’ve gone out fast and probably a little beyond my abilities. We pass the next few miles together and it’s nice to have some company. We  chat about people we know and races we’ve done and the first part of the climb passes quickly. After a while, Sam pushes on ahead and I continue up. I glance back and see a long stream of head torches proceeding in single file from Les Chapieux up the mountain side.

It is cold and snowy at the Col de la Seigne and I stop to put my gloves on. We have climbed another “Snowdon” since the last checkpoint and I am beginning to feel the effort in my legs. It’s almost 6am and I can see the first hint of morning light appear in the sky.

Ahead of me is the Col des Pyramides Calcaires. The first of the two route amendments for safety purposes means that we won’t be ascending this. I can’t say that I’m too devastated at the moment.

Italy to Switzerland

Somewhere on this dark mountain, I’ve crossed from France into Italy. As I begin my descent, the first rays of morning light illuminate the most incredible sight in front of me. A valley cut out of the mountains by glaciers many millions of years previously. Mountains that have been my companion for the last few hours in darkness, now revealed in all their splendour. Below me is Lac Combal the next checkpoint. This must be one of the most remote checkpoints in the race and I’m left wondering how they managed to transport all the supplies here. I sit and admire the views. Low lying clouds cover the nearby peaks – I’m reminded of the “tablecloth” that often covers Table Mountain in Cape Town.

As I’m sitting there, a volunteer holds up a pair of gloves – oh dear some poor runner has dropped their gloves. I touch my pocket where I’ve stashed mine only to realise they are gone. I gratefully retrieve them from the volunteer, it’s still cold and I’d be in trouble without them.

The course continues initially on a flat trail besides the remains of the lake before heading up towards the summit of Mt Favre. This climb is long and it is here that I start to feel the first real signs of fatigue. On eventually reaching the summit, I stop and lie on the grass for a few minutes, dozing a little and let the sun warm my face. We are now at an altitude of 2,434m. It is less than 10k to Courmayeur, the most significant checkpoint and the psychological “half-way” point in the race. However, it is also a descent of almost 1,500 metres to get there. The scenery here is stunning but I’m keen not to linger and enjoy it for too long. Around halfway between the Arrete Du Mont Fevre and Courmayeur is another checkpoint – a mountain refuge at Col Checrouit. It is marked on my course guide as simply a drinks point, but I’m delighted to see a lady outside serving pasta and tomato sauce from a giant pot – this is Italy after all!

After a brief stop here I continue down towards Courmayeur. The switch backs become steep and technical and snake through woods, teasing us with glimpses of the town below before we eventually arrive on the outskirts. I run through the streets, remembering to smile for the official photographer and arrive at the sports centre which serves as the checkpoint here. Carrie and the boys are waiting outside and I stop to talk to them briefly before continuing inside. It is one huge hall with an area for food, for sleeping, for changing clothes. After the solitude and quiet of the mountains, I feel a little overwhelmed by the noise and bustle. I take some more pasta and find a place to sit. Here we also get access to our drop bag, which I’d packed in advance with spare shoes, all kinds of clothes and food. In the end, I only change my t-shirt but leave all the other items in my drop bag untouched. It’s now 10.48am and time I was on my way.

Courmayeur

I say goodbye to Carrie and the boys and find my way through the street of Courmayeur. The course goes upwards, first along busy roads, then a quiet country lane and eventually returning to the trails. We would now have to regain all the elevation we lost descending into Courmayeur. The climb is long and arduous and I’m thankful to eventually reach Refuge Bertone. The checkpoints on UTMB broadly fall into two categories – the large marquee style checkpoints with rows and rows of tables, benches and crew access and the smaller more intimate mountain refuges. These are mountain huts and are still open to the public during the race. The next section again constitutes a slightly “flatter” section of the course and I try to gain a little time on the runnable grassy ledge between Refuge Berone and Refuge Bonatti. By the time I reach Bonatti, the weather has turned and the warm sunshine has been replaced with a cold wind. After sitting for a few minutes outside Refuge Bonatti, it begins to rain. A cold icy rain. I rush into the Refuge itself in the hope of perhaps finding a quiet corner to sleep for a few minutes. I soon give up on that idea and instead change into my waterproofs.

The descent into Arnouvaz is long and muddy and I’m moving painfully slowly. Other runners are flying down here and ending up on their rear ends in the mud every few metres. Content to stay on my feet, I continue tentatively down. I can see the checkpoint from some way away and I can also see the minibuses behind ready to whisk away any runners who want to call it a day or who are timed out of the race. For the first time, my mind lingers on the idea of dropping from the race. We are well into the afternoon and fast approaching the Saturday night – my second night without sleep. In terms of the big climbs – I have done five but still have another five remaining. The next is the climb to the highest point on the course. It doesn’t seem possible that I can manage that let along another four after that. Surely I should just cut my losses now and save myself the pain? These were the thoughts occupying my mind as I approached the Arnouvaz checkpoint. My mind cannot fathom how I could possibly make it to the finish. But it occurs to me – I don’t need to worry about the finish, I only need to focus on reaching the next checkpoint. Then the one after that. And so on. Eventually the finish will take care of itself.

It takes a massive effort, but I walk past the “abandonment” desk and into the checkpoint proper. I look at the food on offer but nothing appeals so I sit on a bench, with my head on the table hoping for perhaps a few minutes of sleep. However the checkpoint is cold, my clothes are damp and I’m soon shivering. Fortunately, I know just the thing to warm me up, a 738m climb up to Grand Col Ferret! I pull out a packet of Harribo to eat on the way up; it’s about the only thing I can stomach at the moment.

This climb is tough, right from the start and the effort forces me to take regular breaks all the way up.  The higher I get the more frequent the breaks. My training for this race has left me in the best shape of my life so I’m initially a little perplexed by how this climb can be taking so much out of me. Then I realise – the vast majority of my training has taken place well below 500m. I had one weekend on Snowdon which goes to a little over 1,000m. Here I am at 2,500 meters and, whilst this isn’t much higher than a high altitude ski-run, my body is simply not prepared for exerting this sort of effort at this altitude. I feel slightly better that my frequent breaks (now practically after every switch back) are down to the altitude and not a lack of fitness.

Soon, we are in the clouds again and there is snow on the ground. The icy wind makes it feel very unpleasant. On the final approach to the pass, I sit down in the snow, completely out of breath. A woman passes by and encourages me to keep moving. She’s right, it’s not sensible to linger here in the cold. We were warned at the start not to rest on top of the mountains but instead to get down to lower altitudes as soon as possible.

On reaching the top, I peer down the other side and my mood lifts slightly. Against all odds, I’ve reached Switzerland.

Switzerland to France

The descent is less demanding than the previous one and I shuffle along listening to some music.

For a long time, I think I can hear the sounds of cow bells at the next checkpoint. I eventually decide that these are cowbells from actual cows grazing nearby as the next checkpoint takes a very long time to materialise. It is situated in the pretty little Swiss mountain town of La Foully. After a steep descent, I chat to another English runner as we approach the checkpoint in the failing light. On leaving, it’s now dark and raining. I put my head torch on which lights up the rain drops like millions of miniature shooting stars in the night sky.

The next section is through the town on roads. One moment, I’m shuffling along and the next I am asleep on my feet, crashing into a barrier on a bridge across a stream. If I’m like this on the mountain, the consequences could be severe! In the slightly surreal space between waking and sleeping, I’ve completely forgotten where I am and what I’m doing. For a moment, I think I’ve been sent out by Carrie to buy pizza for the boys – I wonder what type they would like? Wait no, that’s not right, there’s runners around me. Are we all going up the mountain to see our friend who lives in a house up there? No, that’s also not right. It is a monumental effort to remind myself that I am in fact in a mountain ultramarathon. This pattern repeats a few times as I struggle to stay awake. I think about stopping for a 10 minute doze under a hedge or something but it is pouring with rain so I continue on.

A little later I catch up to an English runner. I am not feeling sociable in the slightest but realise that some light conversation might be my best bet at staying wake.

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The extreme sleepiness passes as we begin the climb up to Champax Lac. Although not a steep climb, this section goes on for a long time ascending through forest trails. Mentally, I hadn’t prepared for this being a difficult section and I find myself struggling. During the day on fresh legs, I’m sure it is a stunning hike. But late on Saturday night into my second night without sleep I find my enthusiasm waning. Eventually we reach Champex Lac where there is another checkpoint. It’s now 00:30 and the cut off here is 02:00. Could be worse. The checkpoint is close to the famous lake but between my sleepiness and the darkness, I can see very little of it.

The next section contains some enjoyable downhill running and some very moderate uphill. From the profile, I know we are due a big climb very shortly. We eventually reach the foot of the mountain  and I can see long trails of headtorches snaking far far above me into the inky black sky. There are some logs on the ground and a few runners have stopped to sit, fiddling with their kit, changing clothes or just mentally preparing themselves for what’s to come. I join them for a moment before beginning the ascent. Switch back after switch back, this section goes on and on. I recall talking to a few runners but I’ve no idea who or what I said. I have a vague recollection of talking to an Australian runner. Either that or I was listening to Men at Work’s “Down Under” on my ipod!

I eventually see what I have to believe is the final switch back leading to the top only to round a corner and see head torches continuing for what must be another mile above me.  Eventually arriving at the actual summit, I can see lights of a town far below me, this might be Trient and our next destination. There is a small checkpoint in an old mountain barn on the way down, really just to scan numbers. There is a sign saying that Trient is only 5km away. Some volunteers have lit a bonfire out back and are warming themselves beside it. For a moment I fantasize about sitting by that bonfire myself dozing in the warmth without a care in the world. Not today! Somewhere on this descent, night begins to give way to early morning and as I emerge from a forest trail, I can see a few buildings  ahead of me. It is completely silent but I have to believe that one of these is the Trient checkpoint. My spirits fall further when I realise the trail turns and continues down a farm track. Surely the checkpoint is just at the end of this track? We are directed off the track and onto another series of switch backs through some words. The checkpoint must be here somewhere just through the trees? After several switch backs, I eventually catch sight of the checkpoint, still a long way below me. That 5km sign further up the mountain was a horrible lie!

Dragging myself into the checkpoint, I study the profile of the remaining part of the course. The next mountain looks pretty much a carbon copy of the last one. I don’t have it in me to do another mountain like that last one. I decide that I need to find someone who is familiar with the course who can tell me that the profile is wrong and the next mountain is in fact much easier than the last one. There is an English UTMB official standing close by and I ask her this question. She looks at me and shakes her head sadly. However, she is keen to encourage me.

“It normally takes two hours to get from here to Vallorcine. That’s on fresh legs, However, you have four hours to do it in to make the cut-off at Vallorcine.”
Something in my mind clicks. Ok, if I can get to Vallorcine in three hours, that would give me an hour buffer against the cut-off at that point. With just one mountain left and less than 20km to the finish, I think that would be enough.

I jog out of the aid station feeling optimistic and begin the next climb. It’s now 07:15 on Sunday morning. As I start the climb up to Les Tseppes, I feel my confidence returning and I’m enjoying myself for the first time in nearly 24 hours. I start passing other runners on this climb. This makes a pleasant change as the race to date has been one long procession of people passing me. I think back to my training on Snowdon, running up and down the mountain; this is what I was preparing for though I probably didn’t even realise it at the time. For the first time the finish line, though still many hours away, becomes something tangible and attainable. I power my way to the top and rest for a moment or two, soaking in the views which are breathtaking.

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I’m happy to invest a few moments resting here, but I can’t stay long. As much as I like to think of myself as a master tactician playing a game of “cut-off chess”, I realise that “cut-off Russian roulette” is a better analogy. I check my phone. Tim has sent me a message telling me that I can make the finish, but I need to keep moving. I take this advice to heart and begin the descent back down into France.

Return to Chamonix

I have made excellent time on the last ascent and I had hoped to capitalise on this with a fast descent into Vallorcine. However, this isn’t to be. The trail down hill is rutted grass and mud and, again, try as I might I just can’t get a decent pace going.

Eventually I arrive in Vallorcine, exactly on schedule three hours after having left Trient, with my one hour buffer against cut-off intact. I sit for a moment or two in the marquee as crew members rush around looking after their runners. A man announces in English over the PA system that anyone intending to continue in the race should think about leaving soon. I don’t need telling twice.

The next couple of miles are on a grassy trail beside a road. Cars pass by beeping their horns whilst the occupants yell encouragement at us. As I reach the car park at Col des Montets, top British ultra runner, Robbie Britton (who isn’t in the race but is supporting) comes up to me to offer encouragement and a few tips on tackling the next section of the course. I thank him gratefully and start the ascent up to La Flegere.

At this point, the course would ordinarily ascend Tete aux Vents directly, before dropping down into La Flegere. However, this is the second safety modification to the course and so we approach La Flegere slightly differently.

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Having been very careful in treating the course with the respect that it deserves so far, at this point, I’m guilty of underestimating the next section. It’s a mistake that nearly costs me dearly. Earlier in the week, I had recce’d the final part of the course, from Chamonix to La Flegere and back down again. This had taken me around two hours and I had found very straight forward at the time. Clearly that was on fresh legs and we are now approaching the mountain from a different side, but I felt that my recce should provide a good benchmark of what to expect. I just need to nip up to La Flegere, then run back down to the finish in Chamonix and pick up my gilet and a cold beer. But the mountains aren’t done with me just yet.

We continue up and up. I recall La Flegere is a ski resort with a lift at the top. According to my calculations, it should be coming into view anytime now. A hiking sign appears for La Flegere directing hikers off to the right. But the race signage is clearly directing us to the left towards Argentiere. I don’t like this at all but there is no question that we are supposed to turn left here. The trail continues along before dropping down sharply. We lose most of the height that we have just climbed. If there’s one thing I recall about La Flegere it’s that it’s at the top of a mountain not the bottom – why are we descending? The trail continues along, traversing the side of the mountain before going up again.  I chat to an Irish lady. We trade war stories about the night just passed and rue the lack of large mountains back home in Ireland and the UK for us to train on. I look at my watch and work out how much time I have until the cut-off at La Flegere. Two hours becomes 90 minutes becomes one hour becomes 45 minutes – where on earth is La Flegere?!

At this point, my high spirits have gone. I’m sorry to say that my language turns the air blue though fortunately I don’t think that the grasp of English of my fellow runners is good enough to understand what I’m saying.

Eventually the forest trail opens out onto a wide ski run. I look around desperately searching for the checkpoint – it’s nowhere to be seen. All I can see is a long line of runners continuing up to the very top of the mountain. I completely lose it at this point and start ranting and raving at the nearest runner. A very confused German lady turns and says “Bitte?”. I repeat my rant a little more slowly for her. I state how totally and absolutely unreasonable it is for the organisers to send us on a convoluted route up the mountain. Do they not realise that we have been running up and down mountains for two straight days – all we now want is to go back to Chamonix and enjoy the finish line. The German lady smiles sympathetically and continues on her way.

Of course, I realise deep down that I am the one being unreasonable.  No-one has forced me to do this race, quite the opposite. And the route, even the amended one, was available for us to study in advance. I simply made an erroneous assumption about this final section. When a vast chasm emerged between the reality of this final section of the race and my expectation of it, my sleep deprived mind no longer had the tools to be able to deal with it rationally.

I finally reach the top, now only 30 minutes ahead of the cut off here. I look at the food table. This is the final checkpoint and anything I take here will need to last me to the finish. I swig some coke and take some chocolate for the descent. The initial descent on a wide piste must be a delight to ski in winter. Today it is sheer torture. The piste ends and we are on the final switch backs through woods that will lead us back to Chamonix. I’m on familiar ground now. Very rocky, uneven ground. A few days ago, the rocks had caused me no problems, as I sailed over them, laughing and jumping. Now, I can barely lift my feet a couple of inches off the ground. Each rock needs to be negotiated individually, requiring my full attention. I pass lots of hikers who congratulate and encourage me. I smile as best as I can and mumble “merci”.

A lady from Milton Keynes who is supporting other friends in the race jogs alongside me for a moment or two, offering encouragement, before disappearing up the mountain to find her friends. The trail is narrow in places and at one point leads directly across the terrace of a mountain restaurant. The terrace applauds as I pass by. The support is really touching and I can feel my bad mood from earlier melting away.

In my mind, I tick off the landmarks on this final section; the large wet rocks that need careful negotiating, the signpost directing us to Chamonix and finally the small stream crossing our path. A few hundred metres on, the trail gives way to asphalt and I am on the outskirts of Chamonix. An Italian runner is beside me and we congratulate each other in the few words we know of each others’ language before continuing on towards the finish separately. These outer streets are deserted as the whole of Chamonix has seemingly headed towards the finish. Ahead of me I see the metal barriers that will direct me home. Tim calls my name. He tells me that there is quite a reception waiting for me, just around the corner. I could hear the noise from the finish from some way away and it now gets steadily louder. I see Caroline and she thrusts a union jack into my hands. Sam, having finished earlier that day, is there too next to Tim’s family. Finishing the race with my family and friends, old and new, is very special. Putting the flag around my shoulders, the boys join me for the final few metres.  Jamie, seeing the chance to beat his daddy at running, sprints directly for the finish line, leaving me in his dust. Nice! I manage to grab hold of Alex’s hand before he gets similar ideas and we jog the last few metres together beneath the famous arch and across the line together.

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It’s over. 45 hours, 41 minutes and 4 seconds after leaving Chamonix, I am back. Physically this race has taken me to places of wonder and beauty. Emotionally it has taken me to some places I don’t ever want to return to. As I make me way through the crowds, I try to process everything that’s happened. A lifetime of emotions squeezed into two days.

So the question – was it all worth it? The last two days have contained some of the best moments of my life and some of the most challenging. But as I look back, I realise that without those moments of despair and pain, I would never have felt the moments of elation so keenly. This race was perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

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The Spine Flare – June 2017

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It’s the final leg of this journey. We have climbed out of Horton in Ribblesdale and are now on Cam fell. It is late evening and the June sun hangs low in the sky peering over the distant hills. Despite the blinding light in my eyes, I’m desperate for the sun to stay up a little longer. I know that as soon as the sun dips behind the Pennines, it will signal the start of a second consecutive night without sleep. I’d struggled with the sleep deprivation earlier in the day and knew that with darkness, it would return again. There’s still around 10 miles to the finish in Hardraw; it may as well be 10,000 miles at this stage.

Part 1 – Edale and the Dark Peak

The race started 37 hours earlier in the picturesque village of Edale. This is the official start of the Pennine Way (PW) and we’re now minutes away from the start of the first ever Spine Flare and Fusion races. These are the inaugural summer equivalent races of the more famous January races, the Challenger and the Spine. Like the winter races, the Flare is around 110 miles from Edale to Hardraw, whilst the Fusion consists of the entire Pennine Way, 268 miles from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

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As I wait for the race to begin, I think back to my attempt at the Challenger this January just past. My overall memories of that race were of snow, mud, bog, ice and the crushing disappointment of not making it to the finish. Whilst the conditions were bad, it is my own mistakes before and during that race that disappoint me the most and I’m determined not to repeat them again.

The race begins. These summer races are much smaller in terms of competitors than the traditional winter ones and it doesn’t take long for the field to fragment. I haven’t run since Monday and I get caught up in the euphoria of the start. A small lead group of three runners immediately breaks away and for the first couple of miles over Upper Booth on the way to Kinder Scout, I stay close behind them. I quickly realise that there is no way I should be anywhere near the lead group and so ease my pace off. This is fairly easily achieved as I’m now at the foot of Jacob’s ladder, one of the most significant climbs in the race. The ascent seems easier than it was in January; certainly the lack of snow underfoot helps as does the specific hill training that I’ve done in preparation.

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It’s misty on Kinder Plateau as I pick may way amongst the rocks. The path of the Pennine Way isn’t always clear here, a fact compounded by a complete lack of National Trail signs on the Plateau. However, I find my way with no problems, remembering to hug the edge of the Plateau. Past Kinder downfall, I descend the other side of Kinder taking care on the slippery rocks.

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The next few miles are relatively flat and fast along moorland flagstones (the first of many along the PW). Before too long, I’m able to enjoy the ethereal sight of cars in the distance seemingly floating across the distant moors. This is not (yet!) sleep-deprivation induced hallucinations – it is just the Snake Pass road which famously cuts across the moors.

I cross the Snake Pass in good time, ahead of my schedule and feeling positive. As I traverse the next section towards Bleaklow, the path begins to trend upwards. A drone buzzs overhead filming the race. It follows me and another runner for a few hundred meters before turning around and heading back towards Snake Pass. For a moment, a thought enters my head, completely uninvited – there’s still over 100 miles to go. I quickly banish that thought. My absolute golden rule is not to think about the distance remaining until I am close to the end; instead I try and focus on breaking the race into small sections and reaching the next landmark. Somewhere along this section, I chat to Charl, a gregarious South African doing the full Fusion race. Over the course of the next two days, our paths would cross many times and we would run several miles together. Charl pushes on and I’m by myself again. At this point, I become aware of another runner behind me. This I would soon discover is Helen. Only later would I realise that our races were to be inextricably linked. For the time being, Helen, Charl and I spend the next few miles at times running along and at times in twos and threes. After Bleaklow, the PW becomes a narrow single track alongside a steep sided valley, before finally dropping down to Torside reservoir. Here we’re able to refill our water bottles from a support vehicle before beginning the climb up to Black Hill. Despite being a remote scenic section, this always feels like a slog. Somewhere along here, I feel the first hunger pangs. My plan is to keep the calories coming in as consistently as possible. I know that there is often a snack van located at the next road crossing, so I decide to push on for that rather than dipping into my food stash that I’m carrying. From Black Hill there is a perfect downhill section. I do enjoy a good runnable downhill and so attempt my best Kilian Jornet impression by hammering this part.

I reach the snack van just as the lady is beginning to pack away. I can honestly say that collapsed in a plastic chair by the side of the road, I would not have exchanged my bacon bap and coke for the finest Michelin started cuisine in Paris; it was just perfect in every way. Charl soon joins me and is quickly expounding the virtues of the pork scratchings that he is enjoying. We leave together and begin the next section.

Part 2 – Into the South Pennines

We start the descent from the road down to Wessenden Head Reservoir. This was the section in January’s race when the bad chaffing began (due to some bad clothing choices) and I got the first inkling that it really wasn’t going to be my day. Today, however, the going is good. The Pennine Way drops into a narrow valley crossing a stream before rising immediately again on the other side. I stop to fix the chest straps on my backpack(the first of a few kit malfunctions) and Charl, Helen and Raj (another Fusion runner) push on ahead. I recall running this section in the darkness completely alone in January with no sign of any other runners. Today a combination of being so close to the summer solstice and also being significantly up on my January time mean that I still have many hours of daylight left. I decide to make the most of them and push on. As I cross the new stone slabs stretching across the otherwise desolate moorland, I recall seeing these same slabs being brought in by helicopter during a run over these moors the previous October.

A light but steady rain begins to fall. I catch up with Raj and Charl who have stopped to put on their waterproofs and I join them. The three of us pass a few enjoyable moors across the moors. The wet weather makes the race feel a bit more “Spine-y”. We stop at another moorland car park where a support vehicle has left water for us. As we fill our bottles, I feel invigorated by the rain. I look across at Raj and see the look of euphoria on his face. This is living and we both realise it in that moment.

As we continue along Stanedge, I experience a vivid flash back to January. This point was one of the (precious few) highlights from that race – a huge full moon rising into the inky black night sky. It is, of course, still daylight today and there is to be no full moon when darkness does finally set in. I push on the pace along as I feel Check Point 1 (CP1), beckoning me onwards. The next few miles pass by quickly. The top of Blackstone Edge is rocky and adds some rugged beauty to the otherwise grassy moorland.

I pass the White House pub, once a regular haunt of Spine racers past. Unsure if we are still persona non grata, I continue past towards Warland reservoir. Here the PW has been rerouted to go anticlockwise around the reservoir rather than the usual clockwise direction. The alternative route feels more remote and I’m a little surprised to see a small tent that has been erected in the middle of the trail. I squeeze past trying to avoid disturbing whoever is inside.

The sight of Stoodley Pike in the distance lifts my spirits as I know it’s around 5 miles from there to the checkpoint, a hot meal and a sit down. Once again in January, this section was a low point. I’d lost the path (such as it is) beneath the snowdrifts and was forced to find my own route through thigh deep snow hiding rocks, bogs and grass. Stoodley Pike is famous for appearing in the distance, teasing PW hikers in the distance but seemingly never getting any closer no matter how much progress is made. That was my January experience (or it would have been had I been able to see the tower in the dark and the mist). But today is different; the path is dry and clear and the Pike grows steadily in size as I approach.

I eventually catch up to Helen who is resting by the side of the trail. We agree to traverse this section to CP1 together. We stop for a few minutes at the Pike and empty our shoes of bits of trail that have found its way in.  From Stoodley Pike, the PW turns downhill first across fields, then past farm buildings and eventually down an access road before coming out on a bridge across the River Calder. No sooner do you reach the bottom before you have to climb back up the other side of the valley, initially along a narrow stone path between houses. With CP1 now close, I suggest to Helen that we try and leave the Check Point together. It will be dusk by the time we leave and some company during the night crossing of the moors seems appealing to us both. I also discover that Helen is an A&E doctor. She could possibly could be a good person to have around, though I hope not to have to call on her expertise!

My feet are starting to suffer and I can feel blisters developing. I look forward to having these taped up at the Check Point. before too long, the PW comes out in the village of Colden. Sadly CP1 is a non-trivial diversion off the PW, so we leave the trail for the time being to follow the road past quaintly pennine stone terraced houses. The path down to CP1 from the road is steep and narrow passing through woods. Eventually CP1 (Hebden Hey scout hut) appears as if from nowhere out of the trees. Outside, we are swarmed by midges so hurry inside. I make a beeline to the dining area and enjoy a steaming hot bowl of chicken stew. I’d planned on a complete change of clothes here and feel like a new man after a quick shower. There are bunk beds available here and many racers are planning on a short sleep. My pre-race plan was to push through and complete the race with no sleep as preparation for UTMB later in the summer. In any case, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through me and had I tried to lie down, sleep would certainly have alluded me. Up in the medical room, the medics do a fantastic job on my feet. Helen has previously volunteered as a medic on previous winter Spine races and is treated (quite rightly) as a returning hero by the other medics. Fed, rested and patched up, we head for the door. At this point, I realise that one of my hiking poles has broken. It looks fixable but not without tools. This is a setback as the poles have been useful but I put this quickly out of mind. A positive mental attitude is my greatest asset. Setbacks like this have to be expected and I can’t let it affect me unduly. I stick the broken pole in my pack and continue out the door with the single pole.

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Part 3 – Bronte country

We step out into the cool dusk as the light begins to fail. We thank the volunteers and they wish us well as we begin the ascent back the way we came towards Colden village. The tree cover on the way up blocks out what little daylight remains and we turn on our head torches.

Helen switches on her GPS which happily beeps away marking each mile we cover from the Check Point. After a little rest, the miles pass quickly and before I know it, we have traversed Heptonstall Moor. We pick up our pace along a short road section as we head towards the Walshaw reservoirs. Darkness has fully taken hold now and there is little sign of any other racers. We begin the ascent up to Withins Height. This is Bronte country and the inspiration for literature’s most famous of sisters. We reach the ruins of Top Withins, so famously linked with Wuthering Heights and take shelter from the cool night for a few minutes in an old bothy next door. I take out my phone and show Helen where we are on the race trackers; as suspected there are no other racers anywhere near us.

I start to shiver as we get going again – even stopping for a few minutes has caused my body temperature to drop. We make our way down to the village of Ponden which is completely deserted. As we cross the road past the reservoir, I point out the spot to Helen where my January challenger race came to its ignominious end. Completely disheartened by miles of chaffing, blisters, mud, ice and snowmelt, the race had got inside my head and I’d called my wife Caroline (who had been crewing for me) to pick me up and put the race out of its misery. There are no such thoughts in my head today and I’m completely focussed on getting to the end. In any case, even if I did want to drop out, short of mountain rescue in an emergency, there is no-one for me to call and no one would be coming to rescue me!

After a steep uphill section, we reach the start of Ickornshaw Moor. My preference would have been to tackle this section in daylight but that always seemed unlikely. My only prior experience here was also in the dark the previous November when I had attempted it in the snow. Even with GPS, I had lost the path and ended up far off course waist deep in snow and unable to get back onto the PW due to the bogs hidden under the snow. Tonight the path is easier to follow though we check our maps and GPS a couple of times. At this point, we see the first runner for several hours – eventual joint winner of the longer Fusion race, Olivier passes by us. This section of moorland is rough going and takes a long time and I feel my spirits falling. After what seems like an eternity, we come out at the road crossing in Cowling where a very committed race official is waiting at a bus shelter to take our numbers. This section of the race is my least favourite of the race. Lacking the desolate beauty of the Peak District or the stunning Limestone scenery of the Yorkshire Dales, it feels very uninspiring consisting of slogging between muddy fields and small villages. Perhaps I’m being unfair in my assessment, but this is how I feel.

It’s the early hours of the morning now and I look forward to sunrise to lift our spirits. Just as the first signs of light appear in the sky, the rain clouds roll in and we have a few hours of soaking rain to dampen our spirits further. At this point, I feel the first signs of extreme fatigue and begin to fantasise about climbing into my sleeping bag (which is lovely and warm as it was bought with the Winter Spine in mind), passing out and forgetting all about the race for a few hours. I quickly realise this line of thought will quickly spiral out of control if I allow it to. Instead I turn to Helen and we have a good conversation about our favourite foods/drinks/TV/places to visit – anything to take our minds off the wet muddy trail that seems to stretch inexorably onwards before us. The conversation gives me a boost and I start to feel a bit more awake. We discuss breakfast plans – we talk about finding a pub open at 6am on a Sunday with a roaring fire, full English and hot coffees just waiting for us. Unsuprising this proves to be optimistic and ultimately we have to make do with breakfast from the Co-op in Gargrave. As we sit outside the Co-op, we are joined by a Fusion racer. We try to encourage him to come with us to the CP1.5 in Malham, but I can see from his eyes that his race is over. We wish him the best and continue towards Malham.

Part 4 – The Yorkshire Dales

Gargrave marks the start of the Yorkshire Dales. The section between Gargrave and Malham is fairly flat and gentle, running beside gentle streams and through quaint villages. At Malham, there is a dramatic step change in the scenery – gone is the gentle rolling green countryside. In its place is dramatic limestone cliffs, tarns and waterfalls.

We allow ourselves to believe that Malham represents “the beginning of the end”, though in reality it is still at least 30 miles from the finish. Having missed out on our full English, we decide to stop for coffee and cake in Malham and enjoy a good hypothetical discussion about what kind of cake we would have if we could have any. By now the weather has cleared up and it is warm and sunny. As we enter the tearooms, there is another race sitting outside at a table gently dozing in the warm June sunshine. Coffee and cake is nice but without the adrenaline of the race, I feel the fatigue returning.

My wife  has promised to give me text updates on that other great event in the Ultrarunning calendar happening this weekend, Western States 100. I’m shocked to read that Jim Walmsley has imploaded for the second year in a row when all the talk was of him crushing the course record. However, I’m very happy for the eventual winner, the South African, Ryan Sandes. Ryan is one of my favourite elite runners to follow and he’s had some bad luck at Western States in the past with injuries and illnesses, so I know this will mean a lot.

It’s now a warm sunny Sunday morning and there are quite a few “normal people” completely oblivious to our race out and about enjoying Malham Cove (which is only half a mile or so from the village). We climb to the top of the cove past the hoards, over the spectacular limestone pavement and follow a narrow valley towards Malham tarn. Helen points out a couple of caves in the side of the valley that she had previously scouted out as possible spots to bivvy out. Our plan is still to push onto the finish without sleep. We are bullish about being able to survive the day without sleep. We know Sunday night will be tough but are hopeful that by that stage we will be close enough to the finish that the adrenaline will get us through.

We reach Malham Tarn, there is a lovely breeze across the water and the spray on my skin makes me feel like I’m beside the sea.

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Around the Tarn and before too long we reach Checkpoint1.5 at the old manor house. This is not a full checkpoint (meaning there’s no hot food available or access to drop bags), but there is water and medics. We sit down at a wooden table outside and chat a little with the medics and a couple of other competitors. I find some hot water for my pot noodle which I’ve been carrying in my backpack since CP1.5.

Whenever I set race goals for myself, these are usually around finishing the race or finishing the race in a particular time. I never set goals like “finish in the top x%” on the basis that I can control (to some degree) my own performance but I can’t control anyone else’s. However, Helen and I had realised quite early on that we currently in around 8th place in the Flare race. In fact Helen was the second placed lady. Although we both just wanted to finish, the thought of a top 10 finish was tantalising. We knew from the trackers that there was no other Flare runners anywhere near us. However, whenever we see another racer, this doesn’t stop us peering round at their race number to check that they were a Fusion rather than a Flare runner! I’m not sure where this competitive side has come from, but I really don’t want to give up my top 10 spot!

From CP1.5, we begin the very hilly section of the course. Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent are both significant climbs and stand between us and the town of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Fountains Fell is a long steady (if not particularly steep) climb. At some point on this climb, I fall asleep on my feet and start dreaming about work. Helen asks if I’m ok and I wake with a fright to realise that I’m halfway up a mountain and not at work at all! As we reach the top of Fountains Fell, the wind really picks up and is threatening to blow us off the mountain.

 

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I pick up the pace on the descent down off Fountains Fell. Down at the bottom, we stop for a few minutes out of the wind to have some more food before tackling Pen-y-Ghent. This is the highest point on the course and although it’s a steep climb, it is over relatively quickly. I enjoy using my hands on the scrabble to reach the top.

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From the top, it’s a long descent down into the town of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The traditional start point of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, signs of the famous route are everywhere and I promise myself that I’ll be back to do the three peaks sometime soon. Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the final bit of civilisation that we’ll see before the finish so we make the most of the stop by filling up bottles and having some more food. We toy with the idea of a pub dinner here but instead opted to push on for the finish. However, as we leave Horton we bump into Charl coming out of a pub. He enthusiastically tells us all about his steak pie, chips and gravy that he has been enjoying and I wonder enviously whether we made the right choice in foregoing the pub grub!

Part 5 – Cam fell and the finish

The final 15 miles between Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Hardraw is the only section of the course that I am not familiar with. I’m grateful to Helen who has recced this very recently. It’s a long steady climb up out of Horton and the miles pass slowly.

Helen is suffering with her knees and I’m struggling with my feet. Despite that, we are still working well together.

The sun eventually dips behind the distant hills and we immediately feel colder. We stop and add several layers. The combination of hunger and extreme fatigue has contributed to me feeling the cold much more. As day turns to dusk turns to night, we eventually give in and turn on our head torches. This is a very remote section of the course and there really is no sign of anyone around.

The sleep deprivation has us both in its firm grip and the hallucinations begin. Having largely avoided them in the first night, it seems the second night will more than make up for it. My head torch catches various objects in its partial light and  my sleep-deprived mind interprets them in any way it sees fit. Sheep in fields become people, trees become tents and at one point I see a Star Wars storm trooper sitting beside the side of the road! Of course I don’t believe it’s a real storm trooper (that would indeed be strange), I merely assume that an eager race volunteer has hiked the 10+ miles up from the finish to sit on a remote piece of trail in the cold and the dark dressed in fancy dress as a storm trooper! Of course this makes no sense either. As I get closer, I realise that my head torch has reflected off a small pool of water and my mind has done the rest.

We continue, past Cam End and eventually onto the old Roman road, Cam High Road. We turn onto the West Cam Road (nb this is not a “road” in any way that I understand the word, more a rocky track) and I know ether is another turning off this track coming up. This turning takes an absolute age to come and I’m convinced we must have missed it. However, the GPS confirms that we are on the right track and we still have further to go.

Around this point, Helen turns to me and says “I just a shooting star. It looked like a child was playing with it in the sky.” I frown to myself, this doesn’t sound good. I’ve been worrying about my own rationality deserting me and now I worry about Helen’s too. I look up in the sky and sure enough there are lights dancing around the night sky. We begin an enthusiastic discussion about whether these are indeed shooting stars on some crazy trajectory in defiance of all known laws of physics or perhaps some kind of UFO phenomenon. Perhaps the little green men in flying saucers have come to beam up the crazy ultrarunners! Helen eventually points out that all the stars in the sky are behaving in this way and so we conclude that sleep deprivation is causing our vision to blur the lights. We agree to put socialising to one side and to both listen to our ipods in an effort to stay awake.

Eventually the turning appears and the track starts to trend downhill towards Hawes. National trail signs have all but disappeared and the path beneath our feet is non-existent. We are stopping at regular intervals to take bearings and check against the map. Eventually lights appear in the distance – this is the Wensleydale creamery and will guide us down off the moors into Hawes. Far behind us we see headtorches but they appear to be going off on erratic impossible angles. We’ve no idea where those runners are heading but there isn’t much we can do about it. Rocky path turns to moorland, which turns to field and eventually to country lane as we approach Hawes. It still seems an impossibly long time before we hit Hawes itself. It’s now around 2am and the town is absolutely deserted. We stare longingly at the building used for the finish of the Winter Challenger race in the knowledge that we still have another or mile or two to go to our finish. I look at my phone and have texts from Caroline and also my running buddy, Amy, urging me onto the finish.

More fields and lanes appear and disappear before we eventually see race signage indicating the way to the finish. An arrow points left next to a church yard. We enter the church yard – there is no sign of any volunteers or tents. Just a lot of graves – what on earth are the race organisers trying to tell us? Realising our mistake, we leave the graveyard and instead run down the access road towards the camp site. Two volunteers wait for us by the entrance. The race is over. 110 miles. 42 hours and 47 minutes, good enough for joint 8th place. A normal 100 miler would normally take me 25 hours+, but words like “normal” don’t really have much meaning anymore.

I’m enormously grateful to Helen for the miles (specifically around 75 of them) that we shared over the last couple of days. Undoubtedly there were moments when one of us was feeling stronger than the other and could have forged on ahead alone. However, had we done that I feel certain that we would not have reached the finish as quickly as we did. We’d achieved more together than we would have done individually and that of course is practically the definition of a team.

I hobble to the communal tent where we are given some hot food and our medals. Helen’s boyfriend Jon has kindly left her a finisher’s bag consisting of beers and a hipflask. I’d meet Jon too over the course of the weekend. He’d been enormously supportive of Helen doing this and I could see from his eyes that he’d been inspired to do this event too. Helen kindly shares the hipflask with me – the smoky peaty whisky immediately warms me up from the inside. I grab my tent from the drop bag, manage somehow to set it up before crawling into my sleeping bag. Before surrendering to oblivion completely, I reflect back on the last couple of days. This race has been everything I’d hoped for and more. Wild, rugged and beautiful. Awe-inspiring and life-affirming. But for now, it’s time to sleep.

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