170km, 13,500m of elevation gain/loss in Pyrenees. Race that goes around the whole Andorra but extends to neighbouring France and Spain here and there – can say the route is bigger than the country.
I failed to finish this in 2018. Mentally exhausted with no desire to continue I stopped after the first drop bag station at Margineda… But a day later still in Andorra I decided to come back and try again in 2019. I signed up once the registrations opened in December. My preparations begun much earlier though with the whole season planned with the sole goal – Ronda dels Cims. Formosa Trail, UTMT were both races selected solely to bring my ultra confidence back. I made several changes in my training and added weekly gym sessions for strength and mobility. And although due to some niggles my training did not go 100% according to the plan I felt quite ready for the challenge. And mentally I was surely there this time.
After failing in my first attempt at the Ronda dels Cims I made the decision to give it a second go next July. With that in mind I planned my races for this winter season. Main goal is get back the confidence – first by finishing a 100km race (my last success at 100km distance was way back in March 2016). But as Ronda is a tough race I picked a tough 100km race too as a confidence booster – Formosa Trail in Taiwan organized by Taiwan Beast Runners.
I went into this race with only one goal – to finish. I heard some stories about the technical nature of this race and the look at the profile also promised some tasty climbs. The strategy was to follow the John Ellis School of Pacing from the start to keep the legs reasonably fresh for the monster climb after 50km. And then see what happens.
4am Start in Puli
Race started very early in the morning, 4am. It was still dark so headlamp was obligatory. I set out in very comfortable pace. I knew that we started together with the 65km runners but seeing people flying by me making noises like a tired steam engine still surprised me. In any case I did not care, I kept on jogging in my relaxed pace. This had one advantage. I had so many people and so much light around me that for first 4-5km I could save my headlamp battery .
After finishing CCC, TDS, UTMB and DDF in last four years I looked for a new challenge. When I picked Ronda dels Cims – a brutal 170km long race with 13,500m of cumulative elevation gain/loss I knew I would be seriously testing my limits.
While planning my OXFAM Trailwalker trophies delivery trip to Kathmandu I realized that some cool things are happening there at that time. First the 54km Stupa to Stupa trail race. Then after a day break one could join the Kathmandu Valley Rim training tour organized by the legend Lizzy Hawker. This would nicely fit to my training for Ronda del Cims in Andorra – so I decided to join both.
Not having chance to recce the race route I actually uploaded the GPX to my watch and finally learned how to use the navigation function . It was about the time. But frankly – it was not really necessary. The route was very well marked, one would have to try very very hard to get lost. My flight schedule made things a bit complicated. I only landed in Kathmandu around 10pm the evening before the race. After the obligatory wait for the luggage to emerge on the belt and the taxi ride it was just about midnight when I made it to the hotel. And 4am I had to wake to be able to eat something and get to the 6am morning start. Not ideal but sleep deprivation is part of ultra races so practising it can’t hurt .
Having Purna picking me up in the morning was a great help. And the more of the AWOO Team Nepal in the team colours showed up at the start – what a great moral boost ahead of my first ever race in Nepal.
Swayambhu Stupa – race start
After doing the Chamonix races CCC, TDS and UTMB three years in a row it was time to try something different. After surviving UTMB I wanted to try another 100 miler. As a result of approximately 5 minutes long selection process I picked the La Diagonale. This was back in September 2016.
Since then things went a bit downhill – couple of injuries early in the year affected my HK100 and 9Dragons races. I took few months off training – just jogging and hiking for fun. Then one day in June on a easy morning run my left calf gave up. Sudden sharp pain right across the leg and I knew I have a problem. Just as I was about getting ready to start the proper training for La Diagonale…
There was no running, no hiking for me for the rest of June and the whole of July. Not ideal with tough 100 miler on horizon. Physio treatments were working but the stubborn calf took its time. All I could do for almost a month was the stationary bike. Then at the very end of July I felt reasonably fine to give the calf a test. Very slow and careful walk up and down the road with total elevation gain of about 10 meters over 400 meters of distance – yep, can call that hill repeats. I had about 10 weeks to get from that sorry state of mine to 100 miles ready.
I did not expect anything other than a beast of a race this UTMB to be. After all 170km (or 100 miles) with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss is something I have never done before. I was confident though I am fit enough to complete it under normal circumstances – that is if nothing went wrong. My main worries ahead of UTMB were injury before or during the race and bad weather (especially thunderstorms). The biggest unknown that I could not really prepare for was the second consecutive night on the trails.
My training went mostly according to the plan and without any issues. But then just 2 weeks before the race when I was already in taper mode my achilles started to hurt. I suspect it was result of using my day shoes for way too long. I should probably start tracking my walking shoes mileage too. The pain was quite bad and I was a bit concerned. My taper turned into total rest. This helped a bit. Then while on holiday in Slovakia I spent few hours in thermal spa soaking myself in hot mineral waters and the pain was gone. It came back here and there afterwards in some mild form but there was nothing I could do about it – just hope that it would be alright.
I arrived with my support crew (AKA the family ) in Chamonix the Saturday before the race. In the week leading up to the race me and my older son did one about 10km long easy run on the flat bit out of Chamonix (the opposite direction of the last bit of TDS course), one easy hike towards Plan de Praz and we also hiked up to Plan de l’Aiguille (followed by cable car ride up to L’Aiguille du Midi). That was all.
I will not deny I was very nervous ahead of UTMB. I survived CCC and TDS in previous two years but 100 miles in these mountains deserved some respect. I hoped for a good long sleep the night before but that did not happen. I slept very little and not very well. I planned to stay in the chalet and go nowhere on Friday but my final gear check in the afternoon revealed that my poles will not work – the locking mechanism was rusted. I tried to fix it but to no avail. No way I could do the race without poles so off to the town I was for new ones …
It was a bright and hot afternoon. I did not want to get to the start too early and spend too much time under the hot sun. I got there just after 5pm, about an hour before start. The area was already packed but I thought I managed to squeeze into a decent starting location. I took few photos from where I was standing and packed my phone into my backpack. I planned to fully focus on getting to the finish – there would be no more photos taken by me for the rest of the race.
UTMB 2016 – Start – My view
A year ago while looking up at Mt. Blanc from our chalet just before leaving Chamonix I more less decided to come back. What I did not want was to return and do the same race again. The 100 mile UTMB was still something I was not too sure about. And so I signed up for the 119km long TDS. Longer than CCC, shorter than UTMB – it seemed to be the ideal next step. For some yet unknown to me reasons the organizers ranked TDS as more difficult than UTMB.
TDS – Difficult
My preparations for this race started unofficially with the Translantau 100. Although I was far from fit for that race it was a good self assessment on a difficult course at the end of previous racing season. A six week break with very little running followed. Then from May 1st a preparation proper and booze free diet begun (all the training notes are filled under TDS tag). In general I followed a similar Tue-Thu-Sat-Sun training routine as a year ago with few changes:
a) I added few Wednesday track sessions early on into the training
b) I decided to alternate trail and road on my Tuesday runs to add some pace to my training
c) I stuck with my Thursday morning Mt. Parker routine but I shortened the overall distance of those runs by about 10km.
d) During my training after studying few TDS race reports and realizing what that “Difficult” rating meant I made an adjustment to my training plan – I focused more on climbing and descent rather than overall distance on my long Saturday runs.
After all the issues I had early this year I was lucky to have injury free preparation for TDS. However just about 2 weeks ahead of the race some strange feeling around the right knee appeared. There was no pain, it did not bother me at all while running but I felt something was weird. I could only hope that it won’t bother me during the race.
I can’t really recall when exactly I got the crazy idea to sign up for 100km race in the Alpine mountains. All I know is that sometime during the 2013/14 winter the idea crossed my mind. I had more than enough qualifying points from LT70 and MSIG Lantau50 for the CCC race. So I decided to try my luck in the UTMB lottery. I did not expect to be one of the lucky ones, it was more about improving my chances for the lucky draw for 2015 race.
Few weeks later the lottery results were out and I was in. And as I quickly found out so was quite a big group of other runners from Hong Kong.
I planned to take a bit of rest after the end of the winter season in HK and then start my training at the end of March. Unfortunately after managing to survive the entire racing season without any injury a pain in the hip area appeared out of nowhere during my rest weeks. Therefore the early stages of my CCC preparation were just some easy hikes and practice with poles. The pain was neither getting worse nor better during these hikes so I decided to suck it up and start running about 2 weeks later. It took few more months of running through the pain until it suddenly went away during or after a hot 40km training run in mid June. From then on I went full steam ahead with my training generally involving 2 early morning mid week 20+ km hilly runs, 1 long Saturday run and some follow up run on Sunday morning, roughly 80-90km per week on the trails of Hong Kong and pretty much nothing on the road. But no matter how hard (and slow) you train in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong summer nothing can even remotely simulate what awaits in the Alps (as we were to find out).
So finally after 5 months of training it was time to head to Europe. After spending few days in Slovakia I arrived in Chamonix late on Monday, the week of the race. I originally planned to hike the final part of the course from Vallorcine to Chamonix on Tuesday but the rainy weather cancelled that plan. With the benefit of hindsight I am really grateful for that…
Birds eye view of what we would need to cross at the end of the race
I haven’t done proper full marathon race yet. My first one was to be the Standard Chartered Marathon in Hong Kong in February 2014. Then by chance I found out that back in my home town Christmas Run over different distances is organized every year. Knowing I will be there at that time I thought that it would be good training run ahead of HK100 (not for the hills, just for the distance). And I also found it quite cool to run my first marathon in Žilina, back in the place where I grew up. So I signed up.
I got quite used to doing 40km training trail runs but this of course was going to be a bit different. First of all this was a road race on pretty much flat course so the pace would be much faster than on my hilly training runs. The other factor would be the weather – hard to tell how the freezing temperatures would affect me over the course of the race (it was -6C when the race started).