Friday, 18 December 2009

Stupid injury but great 2009

Looks like I've been over-doing it as my right ITB band is playing up. At least all the major races went well in 2009 and I'm not having to miss anything (yet). I'm hoping a week off and massage will fix it but it's frustrating to not be running, especially in the run up to the Phoenix marathon in January and my first 100 at Rocky Raccoon in February. Any other recommendations to speed recovery from this?

Merry Christmas and I hope to be back on the trails soon and to try to enjoy time off. But all I see is a 2h30m marathon disappearing from the realms of possibility. Mind you, I probably needed a break anyway. Bring on 2010!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Fukuoka marathon - Japanese seriousness

Gloves - every race should give you a funky free pair.

Ohori Park, where the B race starts.

Statue by the start line.

Land of the karate kid required some Daniel-san action.

Ran the Fukuoka marathon in Japan today and it's a great experience. But the first thing I found out this morning is that I have a place in the Western States 100 next year, so that occupied my mind until I got to the race start. My first 100 miler will be at Rocky Raccoon in February in Texas and it's a flat trail race. WS100 will take a whole different type of training, but hopefully the marathon speed will help a bit. The ultras should, although I've got nothing lined up nearly as hilly as WS100. But that's something to think about later, as today's focus was a good, old road race.

Just being here's a privilege as it's a male only race with a qualification time of 2h45m. Great concept and this race has some serious history to it - this is the 63rd year and recent winners have included Gebrselassie and Wanjiru. Olympic and World Championships bronze medallist, Tsegeye Kebede, won for the second year in a row with a course record of 2h05m18s (photo of me with him and 4th place Dereje Tesfaye below).

Was a bit worried about the cut-offs every 5k as these were 19m30s for each section and the combination of Seattle last weekend and being in the middle of my hardest training phase for racing the Phoneix marathon next month meant I wasn't as fresh as normal. But there was nothing to worry about and I really enjoyed the experience of being in a fast field.

It starts in Ohori Park for the B stream (2h27m-2h45m marathoners), a beautiful park in the cirty centre with a 2k loop round it. The faster guys start in the stadium where everyone finishes and do just under four laps before heading to the road then meeting up with the rest of the field. I'll definitely have to return for the experience of being in the A stream starters one day.

Although there aren't really any sights and it's just a road course through pretty average streets, the crowds are huge and loud for the 600-odd runners and it's a big TV event. The Japanese take their running very seriously and plenty of supporters had printed lists of the race numbers and names so I had my name called out a couple of times with weird pronounciations.

Being caught up in the vast numbers of fast guys (more sub 2h30m finishers than any other road marathon I can think of) meant I barely thought about the lack of scenery and I just enjoyed the atmosphere. My fiancée had suggested that since I do so many races in costumes, maybe running as Godzilla from the back of the pack would be fun. It would have made for a great photo caption, but I don't think the organisers would have let me start. An example of the over-the-top organisation is the race numbers which are in order of qualification times and we had to line up in rows of about eight people, exactly in number order for the start. I liked this quirkiness, but it's not really needed in a small field.

Finished the day with 2h39m19s after a bit of a slow down towards the end. Had aimed for 2h40m as it's a great training pace to help me improve, but it felt like a real effort for the last 10k (mind you, the first 32k was very comfy and enjoyable, much more so than normal). Oh, and there was no medal, but a small towel in the goody bag beforehand and a big one at the finish. The best gear they gave out was the funky Michael Jackson gloves, which I'll wear with pride through the winter.

That's the last race of the year, so I can look back at a successful year with improvements all round and 10 minutes off my marathon PB. Most importantly I've got so many memories to look back on and enjoyed almost every minute of every race. If I can keep doing that, then there's nothing more I could ask for.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Seattle marathon Elvis record attempt

Had a lot of fun at the Seattle marathon yesterday with Amy and some of her family. As I do a lot of road marathons it’s fun to mix up the races with different aims and challenges, especially since I did the race the previous year and knew the course. One that I usually like is to try to get as many different ‘minutes’ (like 2h59m, 2h58m, 2h57m etc) as possible for my finishes. I’ve got everything between 3h08m down to 2h45m plus several below. So I usually try to fill a gap whenever possible – 2h40m, 2h41m and 2h44m were all free so I wanted one of these, ideally.

However, the main focus was a slightly different target. I’ve run seven marathons in various costumes so far and broken a Guinness World Record in each case. Four different records, but some of them more than once – fastest Santa, fastest Elvis, fastest superhero (Spiderman) and fastest film character (Maximus from Gladiator). Since I broke them, only one hasn’t been re-broken (film character, 2h53m) and the records now stand at 2h55m for Santa, 2h49m for Elvis and 2h43m for a superhero (Robin from Batman).

So I decided it would make Seattle more interesting to get my record back for the fastest Elvis and to also run a new ‘minute’. It’s a great race and a beautiful city but it’s usually a bit wet and cold as well as having some nasty hills around 20 miles, but I wanted a good training run as well as a laugh.

It’s always funny walking down the street to a race when dressed up like an idiot and I had plenty of people wanting to stop and take a photo with me, even those who’d started the half marathon, but were clearly not in a hurry. And the odd looks you get when you’re at the front of the field at the start are also amusing. Nobody likes to get beaten by the fancy dress runner and I suspected I’d probably screw up a few people’s races by accident as they’d not want to have me ahead of them even if the pace was too fast.

In the end it worked out well and the level of support was great. It’s brilliant to have the spectators and other runners laugh and shout out Elvis quotes and impressions. And this course has plenty of sections where it doubles back and you run past the rest of the field, so I probably saw 80% of the field on the course.

In the end I didn’t quite hold on for 2h40m, but I’d done zero taper as this race was meant to be the weekly longer run. 2h42m and 6th was about as good as I could have expected and knocked a good seven minutes off the record. Shame I couldn’t maintain pace completely evenly and that I got a second 2h42m time, but I didn’t want to jog in the last couple of miles for 2h44m after putting in the work for the rest of the race (besides, the challenge for myself is to run races evenly rather than walking over the line to get a new ‘minute’). So hopefully it’ll be a bit harder for someone to take it away this time and I can have another crack sometime in 2010, maybe at Seattle again.

Some time I’ll get round to getting back the superhero record but 2h43m is a slightly tougher target and I’ll need to find a race where I wouldn’t be going for any particular time otherwise. Oh, and it’ll need to be cold as that Spidey costume is toasty, particularly the mask.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

US Trail Marathon Champs at Ashland

Lithia Park.

The road home.

Finishing and glad about it.

Spot the great outfit on the right behind me.

That outfit again...

My support crew of Amy and the pups.

Another weekend, another marathon. I told myself I'd cut back when I moved to the US so I'd have some time to train when not exhausted. And that's still the plan but I couldn't miss the opportunity to go to the US Trail Marathon Championships at the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon - it is in Oregon and (just) driveable after all.
I'd heard from the guys who'd been 1st and 2nd the previous year and there was a helpful profile on the website so I knew it was a tough course with 3,700ft of climb which was almost all in the first eight miles. Then a flatter section and about eight miles downhill. In fact it was just the last six which went down noticably, but I only found that out later.

Sounded like a good challenge and I wanted to see how fast some of the best US guys are as well as some great scenery in a beautiful part of the country. The fact that the race director is Hal Koener (winner of the last two Western States 100 races) was also a draw.

On race day the weather was about as good as could be expected in November, above freezing with intermittent rain. 150 runners lined up, including Max King who leads coaching sessions in Bend and makes me ache every Tuesday evening. He'd run New York six days earlier and got 2:19 after keeping it to 5 minute miling for 20 miles, but was still the favourite.
I also bumped into Scott Dunlap, a prolific ultra blogger, who I'd met in the bus queue at the Boston marathon earlier that year. Even the US can feel small within the ultra community, but I wasn't quite on first name terms with everyone...yet (give me a few years on the scene and I'm sure I'll get to know the guys who turn up to everything).

So the course started on road and was gently uphill for a mile before hitting fire access roads into the mountains. I went off in 6th behind the lead group but my legs felt tired within quarter of a mile and I slowed down. I later found out that my heart rate monitor peaked at 238 with an average of 201 for that first mile before dropping down to an average of well under 160 for the rest of the race. So either my heart exploded or the HRM wasn't fitted quite right for a mile. My previous highest is 184 in the sprint off at the end of a mile race, so it's a tad unlikely I could raise my beats by 50/minute.

Over the next few miles I dropped back into 20th and felt like I'd need a walking break after less than three miles. Not a good sign, but I felt fatigued from the marathon PB and surprisingly hard effort in the half the weekend before. Or maybe it's just because of trying too hard at the start, but it didn't feel like my heart was working excessively near the start.

The trail kept going up relentlessly and I got a drink at the aid station at mile five, to give me a mini walking break. The trails were enclosed by fir trees the whole way and it made for a good atmosphere with the mist which started to feature as I got closer to the highest point of around 4,900ft.

It wasn't a technical trail although there were some sections of single track. Lots of fun to run on downhill, but I found the uphills a real effort so need to get some hill training in over the next few months...especially if I get a place in the Western States 100 from the lottery in December.

The top section was undulating but at least it was possible to run properly on it rather than a slow jog on the way up. I knew that it would be a really bad run if I didn't do a big negative split, given the profile, but I wasn't sure how much time I'd gain back in the second half. My Garmin went in and out of reception with the trees but it was clear that the mile markers were a bit short, so I went through halfway in about 1h41m but it was certainly short by a couple of minutes. There was some light rain and more mist along the middle section of the race but I was wearing a couple of layers, a hat and gloves so was snug.

I'd barely seen anyone since about mile 4, but had overtaken a handful of people. I was cruising nicely along the top section at close to normal marathon pace but I couldn't wait for the downhill as there was almost 3,000ft to drop and not a long distance to do it in.

As I went past 18 miles I expected to see the slope going down but it still stayed at almost the peak altitude. Only after a water station just after the 20 mile marker (still about the same amount short as at 13 miles, so those middle miles were marked right) did the trail head down. There was a left turn going steeply downhill, reminding me slightly of the latter days of the Trans Alpine race. It looked very cool as the mist covered the trail so I ran straight into a spooky-looking section.

I'd passed a few more people and was hoping to at least get into the top 10 by the end after getting to around 13th before the downhill. I felt strong so was able to really let myself go and fly downhill. I'm always much happier going downhill so I expected to have a fun second half to the race and to catch up a few positions.

I only saw about two more mile markers but had an idea of where I was from my Garmin. I knocked out a 5-minute mile before getting to the one remaining uphill section, for just a half mile. In true McDonald's style I was definitely lovin' it (sorry for the bad pun) and kept approaching guys ahead of me and catching them almost immediately after seeing them in the distance.

Having not seen a mile marker since about number 22 I couldn't be certain where I was but I'd left myself about 26 minutes to do the last 4.2 miles and was going well below 6-minute mile pace, so I expected to be comfortably below three hours. However, when I got to the turn back on to the asphalt road from the start for the last mile and a bit, I knew that the last 4.2 miles would be around half a mile long. That made it a real issue to break three hours and was a bit demoralising after being so certain I was comfortably below that time.

Within that last mile I saw one more runner ahead but he had 200m on me and I didn't think I had a chance of catching him. But I was trying so hard to get that finish time have a two at the start that I knocked out a 4:58 last mile according to GPS (with the help of a little downhill) and ended up 14 seconds ahead of that runner, but just over the target in 3h00m36s. It was slightly long in total which wouldn't normally be an issue for a trail race, but those mile markers had really screwed with my mental calculations.

The first eight miles hadn't been fun for me but the remainder was a great training run with a lot of hard-pushed miles. I squeezed into the top 10 with 8th place, which wouldn't have been a success in my mind prior to the race, but after feeling the tiredness in my legs it was really satisfying. And, allowing for the mile markers being slightly out, I got the most negative splits I've ever run - 1:43 and 1:17.

A really challenging course and some great performances from guys from all over the US. Max King did indeed win, in 2h40m (a course record). Pretty scenery too, although the mist and light rain meant I couldn't see as far over the forests as on a clear day.

Next race is the Seattle marathon at the end of November and I've decided to run as Elvis to get back the silly Guinness World Record for fastest Elvis. Someone recently took the 'title' away from me with a 2h49m run so I think it'd be fun to get it down to about 2h40m. Hopefully that'll be a tough one to beat, although I'd had it for two years with 2h52m. I might even run as Spiderman again within the next year or so to get back the fastest superhero record which was snatched away a few months ago with a 2h43m run...ok, I know they're both weird records but it adds some funky variety to the road marathons. Not every road marathon can be a PB attempt so these records add a fun challenge and the crowds go wild for it. I'd recommend it to anyone, but not to guys who are faster than me :)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Halloween running around Bend in a half

Halloween had the Run Like Hell Bend half marathon. Plenty of costumes, especially in the 5k. But I opted for the longer race and had a tough day running into the wind around Aubrey Butte, a volcanic hill in west Bend. Nice big hill to climb from about 4-9.5 miles, which wouldn't seem like much if it wasn't for the fact it's a road half and the pace is fast - only about a 400ft climb.

I wanted to lower my half marathon PB after almost beating it in the marathon last weekend (75:46 to beat) but the tired legs and wind defeated that aim. Still happy to have seen some new parts on the edge of town and had a good tempo run in 1h17m with 3rd place. And I felt comfy at faster paces than normal, excluding the middle miles with wind and uphill, so a good day, all in all.

Then there was a mini party at Deschutes Brewery, where the race HQ was. 2 free beers and some food and other drink. But as I had to drive home I just chatted to a few people and enjoyed an opener to some Halloween fun for that evening. I'd considered running in fancy dress but wanted to save my costume for the evening - Spider Elvis...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Tri Cities Marathon goes like a dream

Just a quickie here as I've just run the Tri Cities marathon in Washington State and would recommend it to anyone who wants a good time, perhaps for a Boston qualifier etc. I've not seen many faster courses, except Berlin, Amsterdam and a couple of other flat-as-a-pancake courses. The four bridges aren't too high so barely hurt your time.

I was helped along by my in-laws to be, Laurel and Clint, as well as Amy. Clint is a very good cyclist although he doesn't compete much these days, so he decided to cycle the course with me. Not something you can do in the big marathons, but as this had under 300 marathoners plus the relay, there was plenty of space, especially as he joined after half a mile when the field had spread and I was just running with one other guy, who was in the relay.

I'm ecstatic as I went for a personal best and got it. Had hoped to scrape under 2h35m and shave off a bit from my Reykjavik time in August (2h36m59s). But it went like a dream and I somehow led from start to finish to get 2h32m40s. Am still on a massive high as I basically got my half marathon PB back-to-back. This Bend air seems to be working for me.

So now I have 10 months until my wedding of hard training to see what I can pull off. Apart from trying to break 2h30m in Phoenix, Arizona, in January, the other two major efforts will go into Comrades double marathon in May (if I can get there given visa issues in the US) and the Western States 100 in June (if I get a ballot place with approximately a 1 in 7 chance by my calculations).

It's looking like a fun year of running and I'm genuinely excited about every race I go to, even if I'm just running it as a long training jog. Running gives so much, although it does take a lot of time and effort to get in shape for race day. I know I'll meet more great people on the trails, roads and wherever else I manage to fit in a race or run.

Finally, well done to the UK runners doing a combination of one, two or three of the marathons over this extended weekend - Beachy Head (Sat), Greensands (Sun and an inaugral event that went down well) and Dublin (Mon).

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Oregonian running - about time too!

After trying to move to the US for a very long time to be with my fiancée, Amy, I finally arrived (on a tourist visa for now, anyway) in September. But I didn't get to my home in Bend, Oregon, until later, after several races and visiting several States.

It's just been voted as the best place to run trails in Outdoor magazine, so should be a perfect place for trail running. Excellent - just the sort of news I wanted just before I arrived, although I already know just how beautiful it is. Snow-capped mountains, forests and great views almost anywhere, even in downtown.

So after a visit to some of Amy's family in Portland and the marathon there (see photo with large crowds of runners on a road, above), I arrived in Bend just in time to join the running community in a local half marathon...on trails, of course.

The Dirty 2nd Half is the sequel to the Dirty Half in June each year. As it was the first year for this 2nd Half, people weren't quite sure what the trail would be like, but the times from the June race included some sub 6-minute milers over the trails.

It was a little out of town at the Seventh Mountain resort and started early on a Sunday in October. After really hot weather for the weeks before, it had cooled down to winter-like temperatures. Well, English winter (a fair bit below freezing).

I only did a short warm up due to the cold then lined up with about 300 others on the trail. All we could see were trees, but the race director told us there would be a climb from about 3 miles and that it's generally a hard course to run fast on, but not too technical apart from a few sections.

Sounded ideal to me, although I'd trained hard during the week to get ready for a marathon at the end of the month. I'd hoped to place well, but Bend has a reputation for having a lot of top class trail and ultra runners so I had no idea of who would turn up (or what they look like). Although I had met one guy, Max King, a top American trail and distance runner (63 minutes in the half marathon certainly impresses me).

Everyone clearly gave Max the nod as the obvious winner and he showed it within 100m by sprinting after the lead mountain bike at about my sprint speed. For the rest of us, there was just open trail ahead as we lost sight of Max after about a mile (he slowed down to a more reasonable 5min/mile pace).

The trails were beautiful, but with my body parts freezing I was focusing on keeping up enough speed to get my internal boilers going. After a few miles I felt cosy, but was also tired. I was just behind 2nd and 3rd and the trail started a steepish uphill climb at the 3 mile mark, just as advertised. The ground wasn't icy, but I slowed down so much I wasn't in much danger of slipping on anything.

We mainly followed a mountain access path but the hill kept on for several miles and went from about 4,000ft to 4,750ft (it's so useful to have the Garmin to tell me how much drop I'd have until the finish). I felt bad and was overtaken by several people, just wanting the climb to stop since my legs weren't fresh enough.

It eventually levelled out at a water station at 7 miles, then went on to a single track path. This was more my sort of thing - varying degrees of downhill on more technical terrain. I started enjoying myself again as the path wound left and right, sometimes ducking under branches.

This kept going for most of the rest of the race, but with a few harsh uphills thrown in. It felt great to be in the wilderness with some slight danger of bears, cougars and the like...but not much danger. I'd done trail marathons in the UK but never a trail half and never in such a pretty forest. In fact, all the trail marathons had only involved sections of forest since we don't have as much of it in England. And since I'd never done a shorter trail race I'd never tried to run really hard on the trails and push the speed up.

It was a mental boost to go at about 5k pace on the trails, even if they were downhill. But the last 3 miles or so were back on the flatish/undulating section, overlapping part of the first 3 miles. I could see 2nd and 3rd again after a long absence from them. But I managed to follow 3rd down the wrong way and add on a quarter of a mile before we both turned back. The guys behind had caught up and 2nd was nowhere to be seen. I didn't care that much since I'd had a fun race and the second half had made up for the pain of the first half. I made one last effort to get into 3rd and managed to hold it to the finish.

1h26m was slower than I'd expected but until mile 7 I was on for my personal worst half marathon time. Max managed 1h14m and won by 10 minutes. But at least it gives the rest of us something to aim for...

A really enjoyable start to living and running in Bend and the organisation was great from the local running shop. I'm really looking forward to more races around here and to meeting a whole new set of runners.

Next race is the Tri Cities marathon in Washington State, where Amy's Mom lives. A completely different type of race, it's a dead flat road race. But having that variety is what makes running so interesting and challenging to me. I wouldn't give up any one type of surface or race and am looking forward to including 100 milers in my regular set of races, almost twice as far as anything I've done before.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Lake Tahoe Triple - heat wave

As my first race after moving to the US, I was really looking forward to the Lake Tahoe Triple marathon for several reasons. The main ones were that it's one of the most beautiful places imaginable and the location of my wedding in 2010. So I was hoping it would live up to the expectations from photos and from what friends and family had told me about it.

Amy and I were not disappointed and the wedding venue is spectacular (one of my better ideas). We were also lucky to arrive during a heat wave at the end of September, with record highs on several days around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). This made the lake look perfect, as the photos show, with amazing backdrops of the surrounding mountains and bright, blue sky. Over the three days of the race I'd get to see the entire 72 miles around the lake, with a 6.8 mile overlap to make up the distance. It straddles the border of California and Nevada so I'd get to run in two different states.

I wasn't sure how my legs would feel having only had two weeks to recover from the Transalpine race. Even though I'd tried to 'jog' through that rather than destroying my legs, there's no way to escape the constant climbs and punishing descents so I knew my legs would have a slight hangover. On the plus side, I expected a benefit from a week of altitude training. It didn't quite work out like that.

After a couple of days of relaxing at the lake with my parents, I had the triple marathon expo and a briefing pasta party on the Thursday night. Most people were new to the race and almost everyone seemed to come from far away, with many from outside the US. Bart Yasso, of Runners World, gave a speech, as did a couple of past winners. The winners were describing the course for the three marathons and I realised that there would be a few more hills than I expected.

Although I'd just come from a race where the average climb per day was 7,000ft (2,200m), that had been off-road and I hadn't been trying to keep up 3-hour marathon pace. So the 800ft+ (250m) hills would be an added obstacle. As they described it, day one starts at 6,900ft and has a steep drop down to lake level at 6,200ft with a climb to over 7,000ft at the end and some undulation in-between. Not too bad, but difficult to follow up with two more similar days. The general feeling was that day two is the easiest as it started downhill then followed the lake with just a couple of climbs to 6,500ft in the second half.

Day three would be the hardest, and not just because of the preceding two days. But it was the main event as it also included a lot of single-day marathoners, a half and a 10k, while the other days only has a handful of single-dayer marathoners. In fact, the number of combinations of races is large as runners can pick and choose, although the main choices are:

3x marathons (Fri-Sun)

1x marathon (any day, but Sunday is by far the largest event)

2x marathons (Fri-Sat) with a 72 miler round the entire lake on the Sunday

'Just' the 72 miler

A half/10k/kid's run on the Sunday

There are also kayaking and bike races which can be included in the mix. That meant there were a lot of racing tourists in town, mainly staying in South Lake Tahoe, like we did.

The one other point which I found out about at the pasta party is the unclosed roads for the first two days. Normally that wouldn't matter too much, but with a lot of sharp twists and a major 2-lane highway around almost all the lake, that meant getting dangerously close to the traffic. We were told to always run on the left so we could see the approaching traffic and that we may occasionally have to jump over the barriers to avoid trucks...except the barriers sometimes had near vertical drops on the other side of them. It left a few people a little nervous, to say the least. But the main feeling with the runners was anticipation and excitement.

On the Friday morning there were less than a hundred runners lined up at the start, all wrapped up warmly due to the temperatures being just over freezing at 7am (for a 7:15am start). I knew two runners from the UK 100 Marathon Club, Jack Brooks and Roger Biggs (Basher and Dasher, as they refer to themselves). We were told it would get hotter by the afternoon and be back up to the record temperatures, but I was expecting it to be under 70 degrees Fahrenheit even when I finished, around 10:15am, if all went to plan.

One of the things I love most about ultras (and I count multi-days like this as a type of ultra) is the tactics involved. It's easy to get caught up and start racing immediately, or at least push too hard. However, it all comes down to who can sustain the best pace later in the race so too much effort early on will severely harm the latter stages.

With this in mind, plus a slight nauseous feeling, I tried to pace myself...except I also wanted to win so I needed to see how good the competition was. The slightly mad race director started us with his shotgun and with a downhill to start with, I found myself running with two other guys at about 5:30min/miles. Oops...

After a couple of miles I got a sense that they weren't lunatics going off way too fast and that they knew what they were doing. We reached just above lake level after about three miles and I left them go into the distance, reasoning that I could only run my own race and that their pace was way too quick. However, on the flat they had slowed down to a more reasonable speed, but well below 3-hour marathon pace. I also had some stomach issues which caused me to stop for a 'comfort break', before getting going again.

So after just a short time I found myself running completely alone on the side of the road. I'd expected it to all be road, but found that there was a section of a few miles of walking trails, just next to the road. I didn't mind, except that I'd arranged to meet Amy and my parents at seven miles, which was on the road at a junction. This gave them a bit of a lie-in before seeing me and allowed me to dump my warm clothes and gloves with them. Luckily, the route took me back to the road at least a mile before I saw them. They'd expected to see me in first so were surprised by the two ahead of me and thought I must be struggling. I wasn't at that point but had some issues ahead of me later that day.

The next time I saw them was at halfway, right outside our hotel in South Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately this wasn't part of the course, as I only found out later. I thought we were meant to stick to the main road round the lake, but just before the hotel there was a turn left to get a little closer to the lake and see the start of the kayaking race, then rejoin right after the hotel. I only found this out later on as I'd not been looking for chalk arrows on the road to divert me from the only bit of the course I actually knew...or thought I knew. It was under a half mile which I cut off, but it did surprise me that I could see second place again after the hotel.

I was feeling ill by this point and wasn't sure why. I didn't think it could be altitude since I've run many times at higher altitudes with no effect, but this must have been the cause. It dragged me down through the rest of the race and I struggled to keep below 7min/miles. Then the big climb towards the end left me walking sections. I really wasn't able to enjoy the course, scenery or the sensation of running and just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.

It didn't help that it got hotter and hotter or that the 3 water stations on the course were so far apart. It was lucky I had my support crew, but they were only stopping where they could on the highway, so it was more than the every two miles I'd hoped for. Dehydration was also adding to my general fatigue, so when I saw the turn into the parking lot for the finish I couldn't wait to eat and drink. I finished in 3h04m, eight minutes ahead of fourth and behind Lynyrd Skynrod's stunning 2h43m and Blue Benadum's 3h00m.

I was certainly right to not stick with Lynyrd as he was aiming for the world record of 8h11m for the triple, which had been set three years earlier at Tahoe by a South African Comrades gold medallist and 2h18m marathoner. So there was some hot competition this year - normally 3h04m would have been enough to be leading. On the was back I sat in the lake to help my legs recover, but even then I was feeling sick.

That afternoon I was wrecked and worse than I've ever been after a race. I couldn't hold conversation and had no appetite, feeling like I was in a waking coma. I tried to stay awake so I could get a decent night's sleep, but eventually went for a 90-minute nap as I couldn't stay awake. I'd felt like dropping out during the second 13 miles of the first day, but was glad that I was still in with a shot of the podium.

I had no idea how the second marathon would go or whether I would feel worse with the altitude. It started at the highest point on the course, at 7,100ft, but had another steep downhill for the first few miles before levelling out to a relatively easy stage.

On the start, I noticed Blue and Lynyrd looked very fresh so decided I needed to push Blue for second to make the race interesting. If I was too ill, I was too ill, but I wanted to see whether my body had recovered from the previous day.

I set off in a pack of Lynyrd, Blue and the guy who was fourth the day before, Rudy. We sailed through at a 6min/mile pace and I was getting worried that Rudy was a better runner than I'd given him credit for and that third may be a struggle.

I was in second on my own and just behind Lynyrd at seven miles when my stomach forced another stop. I thought I'd gone clear of the other two but they had been just behind and immediately overtook, which was demoralising. The morning had been a little warmer and the race had started at 7:45am to fit in better with the bike race on that day. So the temperature was a comfy 50-ish and only got to the mid-60s by the 10:30. That meant I wouldn't have as much of a problem with heat. The water stations were almost non-existent again and this time my team only caught me up at 15 miles, so I'd had to carry my own water until that point. My entourage had grown to include Ron and Barb, Amy's Dad and his new wife, who had arrived the day before. So now I felt like I had a big cheering team along the way.

I stayed in fourth for most of the morning, just able to see Blue and Rudy ahead. Around 17 miles I hit a wall, but it was just a normal marathon wall so I kept telling myself it would go away and it didn't matter if I dropped off the pace slightly, as long as I kept running. During this section I had great views of the lake and saw my support crew several times. It always cheered me up and Amy's shouts could probably be heard on the other side of the lake.

By 20 miles I was feeling fine again, so I knew the altitude sickness had evaporated after a good night's rest. My trusty gels perked me up too, and I could soon see the two guys ahead of me. In fact, I found that I was rapidly catching them and that I'd speeded up considerably. So around 23 miles I overtook and Rudy looked very tired while Blue looked pretty comfortable. With that thought in my head I didn't dare to drop any pace in case he could stick with me or overtake.

The last miles included a hill of around 300ft. Not much but enough to cause issues after almost 50 miles of running overall. I had to walk briefly but as soon as I heard Blue behind me I got jogging again and enjoyed the gentle downhill through the tree-lined road. I was enjoying it at this point, as I should be in a race. I had a brief bout of fatigue as I approached Tahoe City, where the race finished, but was feeling much stronger than the day before.

It didn't help that the race director had told me at the finish of day one that day two was purposefully about a mile long to fit in with convenient spots to start and finish. As long as it was definitely longer than 26.2 miles it would count for the world record, but an extra mile seemed harsh. So as I approached the end and my team's cheers got louder (they could see I was going well and wanted me to keep my position), I ran through Tahoe City and expected my Garmin to go on to 27.2 miles. As it was only at 26.2 miles and there were cones going on to the beach, I assumed that meant a section off the main road. But there seemed to be a lot of people and many were cheering as if it was the end. I had to ask three times if it was the finish before I believed them, but I was relieved as hell. I only took a minute out of Blue, but several more out of Rudy. Lynyrd managed 2h52m, so won comfortably but was off record pace. He looked rough and said he'd not had the best race.

The atmosphere was fun and there were beers at the end again (I'd not been slightly interested in the on day one), but I decided to wait til the very finish to celebrate. I'd reduced the deficit on Blue to a bit over three minutes so felt like I was in with a shot on day three. I also wanted to beat him by at least another four minutes to make up for the half mile I missed out. So that left around eight minutes as my target to beat him by...a tall order.

Most runners went over to the lake to sit in the water and aid recovery of the legs. It was a bit cold, but generally pleasant. Then I ate with my family as my post-race appetite was back to normal. By early afternoon we were ready for the 33 mile drive back to South Lake Tahoe and I was much more awake to enjoy the afternoon.

That left the final day and there was a real race on for second. It started later, at 8am, but the shuttle bus only got me in 15 minutes before that and the extra runners meant very large toilet queues. Most people therefore didn't get their final preparations in before the gun. There were more like 500 runners at this start and it felt like a much bigger event. There was an area at the start reserved for 'elites', which meant the top few in the triple and anyone expecting to place in the marathon. They even had a singer for the US national anthem, which seems to be the standard at any non-tiny US race. Race Director Les started us with his shotgun again, and we were off down a narrow walking path by the beach for the first 100m.

There were a few contenders for the final marathon stage and I expected there to be several guys below three hours. My body was a bit tired but I felt better than at the starts on the other days due to no altitude sickness nor stomach issues. So I wanted to finish strongly, which meant sticking to 3-hour marathon pace for as long as possible. Given this was the 'hardest' day, the first half was surprisingly flat and easy, hugging the lake tightly. The roads were closed to northbound traffic (we were going southbound) so we didn't have to hug the verge and dodge trucks.

After a mile I found that the leaders from the marathon and triple were all just about together and not going too quickly. The lead cyclist took us down a side road, but it went steeply downhill to the water and was the wrong way. A few of the group (those who had done it before) ignored this and kept going, but some of us went down then had to climb back up. So this just about reversed the lead group. For several miles the top four triple guys stayed in a pack and the top two single-dayers were ahead and almost out of sight.

I had my 'elite' (i.e. just Amy) support group this time as she'd gotten up early to drive round most of the lake so she could basically drive next to me for most of the race. Neither my parents, nor her Dad, are early risers so they were driving to the finish instead, allowing for a lie-in. It was very helpful to have Amy just there almost the whole way and she took so many photos and cheered for the runners so much that I'm surprised she didn't lose her voice.

As I was feeling good, I kept up enough pace to drop Blue after about six miles. That left about 20 in which I'd need to take eight minutes out of him. Ahead were Rudy (just) and Lynyrd, plus a couple of single-dayers.

The water stations were much bigger, better stocked and more boisterous, with locals trying to put on a show at each one and entertain the runners/walkers. We'd found out on day two that the 72-miler had been cancelled due to permit issues but the entrants for that event were still out on the course on a 'fun run', in no way affiliated with the organisers (of course). I passed a couple of guys from that race, which had started at 10pm the previous evening. It was very cool to have them as part of the whole event and I couldn't have imagined on day one to have kept going around the whole lake...although the altitude sickness played a large part in that. Very inspiring to see them out, even without official recognition.

Just after halfway the hills started. The sun was out and it was heating up nicely so it made for very pleasant running conditions. I caught Rudy and set my sights on the remaining 12-13 miles, with the aim of not losing too much time on the climbs. This worked fine until about 15/16 miles, when the big climb started, from 6,200ft to 6,850ft in about a mile and a half. There are signs at every 100ft of vertical ascent, starting with 'Welcome to Hell'. As it goes up these signs certainly bring a smile to a runner's face as he/she forces themselves uphill. After a couple of signs it starts mentioning purgatory then near the top it says '100ft to heaven'. A good touch, but I mainly focused on not walking. I had a brief walk to take on a gel before powering up the hill (at a breakneck 9min/mile pace).

At the top I caught one of the single-day marathoners who had overtaken me earlier. Then I knew it was only nine miles to go and only one significant climb was left - the one to Inspiration Point where the first stage had started. It seemed like a lot more than two days since that start, but it felt good to be completing a lap of the lake.

There was some undulation and incredible views of the lake below and of Emerald Bay, then a drop down to 6,500ft followed by an immediate climb back up to over 6,800ft. Just six miles to go and all the hard work out the way. I was on a runner's high with the endorphins going crazy. I was flying and managing to enjoy the running, the view and the closeness of the finish. Amy was stopping every couple of hundred metres to cheer and take photos. She gave me updates on the guys in front and I'd made it into third on the day, with just Lightning Lynryd ahead and Sean Meissner in the lead, a 4-time winner of the triple and last years winner in the 72 miler.

As the downhill from day one started, I stepped up a gear to catch Lynryd. I'd had updates from Amy that he was 90 seconds ahead at the bottom of the climb, then just 40 seconds at the top. So it was worth trying to race him for once. I could just see him and it inspired me to push on to the finish. But by the bottom of the hill I hadn't caught up any more time and there were just three miles left. I knew he was much faster than me, but the previous two stages had taken a lot out of him to try to get that world record.

As the last few miles switched back on the the forest paths I'd run on in stage one, I lost sight of him. But then I saw him again with about two miles to go and I was slightly closer. I could tell I was catching, but would there be enough time? I was almost 30 minutes behind him overall, so overtaking him would be purely for pride, but I knew that anything which made me go faster woudl improve my chances of getting second overall in the triple. I didn't know where Blue was but just had to push on.

Then with a mile to go I was about ten seconds behind Lynyrd and he suddenly stopped to put on long pants from his support crew. It seemed strange as it would have been a close race, but this handed me enough time to get second overall that day, in 3h02m, just four minutes off Sean and his fresh legs. Lynyrd was less than a minute behind. We chatted and drank a lot of juice/sports drink and water. I thanked him for giving me the last day, as I'm sure he could have put in a decent sprint for a mile. And congratulated his impressive overall time of 8h39m.

My family were there and enjoyed the excitement of the race day. My Dad even said he wanted to get into a few races locally, back in Northampton, and he's never shown interest in that before. Seems this running thing is infectious as well as addictive.

Blue came in in 3h16m with Rudy and we all went to the lake to chill out post race before heading to the bbq on the beach. The prize giving happened not too much later and there were a lot of trophies, but all for age categories. Meant that about 100 people got a trophy but there wasn't anything for 2nd overall in the triple. Instead I had to make do with 1st 25-29 in the day three marathon (instead of 2nd overall which is a more normal prize?!).

It was a great race, with some flaws in the organisation which didn't spoil the event one bit. A great course, although the roads on some sections were a little nerve-wracking. And it helped that we had a heat-wave to make the afternoons more fun. The weather turned straight afterwards and there was even snow within a week, so the timing worked out very well.

It also coincided with Killian Journet's attempt at the Tahoe Rim Trail record of 45 hours for 165 miles of the peaks around the lake. He managed 38 hours and continues to smash every record he goes for, often records held by ultra legends. I think the triple was a bit short for him...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Transalpine insanity never made so much sense - Sept 09

[Note that the photos are in a random order and not within the text due to the website being annoyingly stupid today.]

What makes a race particularly fun? It depends on who you ask, but I'm sure there are some common threads, like a sense of achievement for finishing, great scenery, interesting competitors or flawless organisation. Well, I'd add a couple more to that list which may not be everyone's cup of chosen beverage: an overwhelmingly epic atmosphere and difficulty levels which push the limits of the body.

And the race I've just returned from has all of the above in oil tanker-sized quantities. It's called the GORE-TEX Transalpine Run and it was virtually the perfect race, based across the Alps from Germany to Austria to Switzerland to Italy. Or eight races, to be more accurate, since it's a multi-stage event with the positions determined by adding stage times for four different racing categories: Men, Women, Masters Men and Mixed.

There's a mixed category in there since the race is run in teams of two due to the danger of alpine running. Yet I (like most) am more used to running solo and not worrying about team dynamics. So the fact that each team has to stay together the whole way, or within two minutes of each other, certainly changes the tactics. Although I hadn't really thought about it in advance when I entered with fellow Serpentine runner/triathlete, Oli Sinclair.

In fact, we'd both been a bit casual in our outlook and preparation. Oli had come off the back of a big effort at Ironman Germany, with less running than usual and very little hill work and none in mountains. I'd had the Mt Blanc and Davos mountain races to give me a taster, but that doesn't really constitute training. Mt Blanc was a marathon with 2,500m of ascent and felt very tough. Davos covered 78.5km but with 2,200m of ascent. That sounded like good training until I saw the stages posted online...

240km over eight stages with over 15,000m of ascent! And one stage is a mountain sprint stage with just under 1,000m of climb so that left an average stage being over 30km long and with 2,000m of climb. In effect we had seven stages like the Mt Blanc marathon, but slightly shorter and a 'sprint' up a mountain. In that context I knew I was in for a challenge since Mt Blanc had left me sore and hobbling for several days.

Luckily, Oli and I had a cunning plan. We would approach the race as a holiday, as we'd initially envisaged it, putting our competitive instincts away in our backpacks and taking in the views at a leisurely pace. Except this is a tough race to just finish and we knew we'd have to put in a fair amount of sweat to get through, even taking it easy.

With this in mind I'd spent the previous month travelling around with my fiancé, Amy, and not trained hard. I even used the taper effect from the month to go for a marathon PB two weeks before the Transalpine in Reykjavik (success - see last posting). And I'd been carried away with the Québéc marathon the following week and put in more effort than I'd planned. That double-whammy had left my legs slightly tired and in no way rested. I just hoped I wouldn't be a drag on Oli but knew that the gentle pace we planned should reduce that issue.

Oh, and I also decided to add jet-lag to my handicaps just for fun, having flown into Munich direct from Vancouver. I then got the first train to the starting village, Oberstdorf, and arrived slightly dazed but excited. Oli had only travelled from London and had done so the day before so was slightly more refreshed.

We checked in at the registration and enjoyed a slow jog through the beautiful mountain backdrops, hoping that the rain would dissipate in time for the 10am start in the morning (it did). Everything seemed to be running like clockwork and the race organisers looked well on top of things.

At the evening pasta party we met a friend from London, Sandra, who had entered in a female team. The atmosphere wasn't electric but people clearly were excited about the week to come. Plus we had a set of maps and profiles for each stage to give us a clue about what we'd be going through. Day one looked about as hard as any other day - 37km with 2,500m of climb. So it wasn't going to be a gentle warm up, but a hardcore baptism of white hot lava, a Mt Blanc marathon squeezed into less distance, hence sharper climbs and descents.

What had we let ourselves in for? Luckily we had the profiles for the other days to help answer that. There wasn't really a let-up in how tough the race would be and every day looked equally as calf-burning. The mountain sprint was the obvious variation, on day five and with the 936m of climb over just a 6.19km distance. This was the rest day, it seemed? What a brilliantly crazy race.

Oli and I had a good night's rest in the communal sports hall with 400 other racers. There were 250 teams lined up for the start in the morning but some had opted for hotels instead of the cheaper option offered by the organisers - large rooms where you can lay down your sleeping bag, put in your ear-plugs (essential) and pull down your eye blinds (also essential). These weren't a problem through the week for Oli and myself, even when we stayed in a WWII bunker in Switzerland which had been converted into Tokyo-style bunks, giving each person about a two sq ft space to squeeze into (only long enough for average height people so the six footers were dangling off the end).

Getting back to the race, the morning came and the sun had replaced the clouds. By the start it was pleasantly warm and we were ready to go. Rather than trying to explain each stage in detail I'll cover some of the general features, partly because the week is a blur of activity and I'm sure time slowed and that we were truly in the mountains for about three months.

Each day generally started with a climb that got gradually steeper and steeper. Everyone started out running but the levels of fitness were clearly graded by how long it took to start walking. Then how long before the walk became a crawl.

Even after just a few minutes we could tell that we were in for a treat with the views. After climbing up to the first checkpoint (we walked some but not much up until then) the mountains lay before us. Unfortunately some people were having to drop out even at this stage and there were several teams which didn't complete the day. Our friend Sandra had not expected the course to be as challenging as it was and didn't get further than this point. But she's vowed to return and get to see the whole course, which is certainly worth it.

As with all alpine races the scenery changes from forests to bare rocks as the altitude rises and the air thins. The first couple of days had significant muddy sections following the rainfall, but also snowy parts near the top. I'd consider myself to be well-travelled in mountains for a city dweller but I was still in awe of the incredible views along the course every single day. Better than other parts of the Alps I've been to and as incredible as the Himalayas, although on a smaller scale and without feeling like a pro wrestler is bear-hugging you.

Some of the climbs nearer the top were very technical with basically no path and just jagged rocks. On many days the rocks were loose to add to the difficulty of avoiding twisted ankles or falls. Mud was the biggest danger at first and I was close to injuring myself on a muddy climb near the end of day one when my legs tried to slip into a side splits and my right knee just stopped me, but by putting a lot of pressure on the joint in the wrong direction. It felt like a niggle at the end of the day but didn't come back to haunt me during the week.

I've always had a preference for downhill running over uphill. It doesn't matter how ridiculous the terrain gets, my legs know where to go and my brain makes the right calls. This helps a lot when there's a significant downhill section at the end of a race as I'm able to finish strongly and overtake comfortably. However, I wasn't sure how comfortable downhills would be with so many stages and so much cumulative descent. Plus I hadn't really considered any differences in running styles and strengths between Oli and myself.

After the first day we had answers to some of the questions about team dynamics. Most other teams had trained together and worked out their comfortable strategies on how to stick together. This was evident in the teams who seemed to stick together like glue on the way up and down and was most apparent in the Salomon Outdoor team who won every stage and were always photographed completely in step with each other.

Oli was fit but definitely less comfortable on the long uphills, a bit slower on the flat (reflected in our marathon times) and also had more trouble letting go on the downhills and relinquishing control of every step to just fly down. However, we were both fine going at the pace we were going at and were taking a lot of photos while we fully experienced the spectacular scenery. And if we could get through the week without injury we knew we'd start moving up the rankings anyway.

That evening we continued meeting more people from the rest of the field, inevitably English speakers. Canadians, Yanks, Aussies, South Africans and even Scots. The Scots, Casey and Iona, had spoken to us on the first evening and were just planning to get through the event with no real competitive aims. But after stage one they were in 3rd in the high quality mixed category (compared to 29th in the men's category for Oli and myself). This theme continued and they managed to push their way into second each day and overall - a very impressive performance given Casey only started training for mountains six weeks earlier.

Everyone was buzzing from the event and, as is usually the case at multi-day events, were very friendly and open to meeting new people. Even though the majority of the teams were German speakers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even Italy (who knew that parts of northern Italy were German speaking?), almost everyone spoke English and we met a varied and colourful bunch of people from many different backgrounds. The race definitely ticked the box for having great company.

Oli and I were slightly sore from the first day but were fine to go into the next stage and there was a notable lack of limping amongst the field throughout the whole week. The field didn't narrow as much as we'd expected each day after half the teams failed to finish in 2008. But I think the weather was much worse for them while we had bright sunshine almost the whole race.

The immediate steep climbing each day caused my calves to scream at me, but because I had to slow down to stick with Oli I was able to have plenty of breaks and the toll on my legs was much less than most. I'm sure Oli appreciated it every time I'd wait for him, take a photo of him bent over double then trot off expecting him to follow. Luckily he was very tolerant of this and pushed on throughout the whole event with gritty determination.

Somehow, our legs stopped deteriorating after about three days and seemed to plateau at a level of fatigue that was very manageable. I think this was the case amongst the field since people didn't have many exterior signs of the damage they were inflicting on their bodies. Well, except for the growing queue each morning at the medical tent to get the Japanese colourful athletic tape on competitor's legs. Some had virtual works of art with the intricacies of knee supports they formed with swirls of that tape. But we refrained.

The only recovery tactics we opted for were compression clothing (just Oli), eating a lot (both) and jumping in a river at the finish line to cool our leg muscles (mainly Oli at first). Oli is unfairly(?) mocked amongst the ultra runners in my club for his many scientific approaches to training (the Maffetone method, anyone?). He has a love of lycra which was matched by the whole field, excluding me. I may have been the only person at the race without one item of lycra clothing or any compression gear. I didn't even have the walking poles for Nordic walking, which half the field had opted for (mainly the slower half) since they just get in the way and slow me down. Besides, using poles is clearly cheating since the Nordic walkers tend to spear everyone around them while they flail about their sticks, either while using them or while carrying them in an overly casual manner. Hence they narrow the field unfairly by skewering competitors.

Our recovery tactics worked just fine for us and we got through to the mountain sprint stage on day five feeling ready for a bit of racing. The rules were different for this stage and it provides a welcome change to the race format. Instead of having to stick together the whole day and having punishing drops to pound the thighs, teams could split up and there was no downhill. The course wound up 936m from the finish line of the previous day to the last checkpoint from that stage. It meant we knew exactly what the course was like.

As well as allowing the teams to run separately, there was an individual ranking as well as a team one. So everyone could have an all-out sprint, if you can call walking half the distance a sprint. For the day's podium there would be an individual ranking as well as team rankings worked out from the combined time of both team mates. However, the overall standings were only affected by the time of the slowest person from each team, effectively like any other day.

This all sounded like a fun variation, but I was a bit worried that the usual mass start would lead to the usual traffic jam on the narrow paths. Cleverly, the organisers had another twist here - to start each team 30 seconds apart in reverse order. We were fairly high up the overall rankings so had a start just before midday.

For once every second counted given how short the course was. And with a course record of 45 minutes we had some idea of how long we would take (I aimed for under an hour, to average a staggering 6.19kph, roughly the speed of a pedestrian). By the time we started there were less teams hanging around and they were all very fit-looking. It was hot but we knew we didn't have to endure it for long.

As the starter let us go (similar to the skiing starts but without the timing bar), we stuck together for a good 100m before I went ahead to bust my lungs and set my calves on fire. The top couldn't come soon enough and it felt like the hardest stage, with every second of walking being minimised. Both Oli and myself overtook lots of the competitors ahead of us and we managed a respectable 49m (me) and 58m (Oli), compared to the winning time of just under 40m, which must have involved no power-walking at all.

After pushing so hard we had the day's pasta party at the gondola station at the finish rather than back down near camp. Oli and I opted for a cheeky beer and it wasn't the only time that week that we felt we deserved it. We felt like we'd been racing for weeks, not days, but it had become a way of life. And a very pleasant way of living at that.

Each evening we had a podium for the winners and various presentations about the next day's English, German and Spanish. It made it drag a little but it was also fun to see the leaders from each category dance on stage to a Right Said Fred tune called 'Stand Up For The Champions', or something similar. It was a fitting end to each incredibly beautiful day where the scenery continued to surprise and stun us. My favourite section of any day was through the Swiss border with Italy where the path had been dynamited out of a sheer rock face and looked unreal.

I can't remember which night it happened, but we even had a live performance from a rock singer called Marty, who is probably German but sings in English. He'd written the theme tune for the race which was news to us (both that there was a theme tune and that it was written specifically for the event). Called 'Keep On Running', it was a decent, if cheesy, rock song which we'd heard every morning just before they played AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell' over the start.

Everyone loved his energetic performance, especially the crouching in guitar solos then leaping back in the air for the singing. It was hilarious but also felt very appropriate and fitting. What was even better was that he'd written another song for another of the organiser's races, which he also performed, then he did an encore for the first song again. Genius! Why don't all races have large, blonde, long-haired rock Gods performing live? The closest I've seen is the classical music played by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra in the MdS after one of the later stages, but that doesn't really compare.

Supposedly the song had even reached number one in Germany, although I'm not sure if that was true. But we all had a surprise visit from him again in the morning as he performed in front of us live at the start instead of playing the recorded version. I was certainly impressed and will now expect similar from all other races.

So the race had transcended the world of running and become a daily ritual for us, with entertainment and who knows what else to expect. By the last day we had the usual mixture of anticipation for the finish and sadness that something so fun had to end. We'd started in Oberstdorf in Germany, run through Austria and Switzerland and arrived in the German area of South Tirol in Italy. That last stage would take us to Latsch and to the after party, where everyone planned to let their hair down and bounce around to crappy music as if their legs weren't sore.

Oli and I had spent the last few days trying to catch a German team purely because of their team name, Luftwafe. Now I know the war's over and that it just means airforce (and those boys were airforce officers), but when we saw their team name we couldn't help but want to beat them for the sake of old Blighty. Sadly, they had almost a 30 minute lead over us going into the last three days and they went up the mountains quicker than we did.

Our competitive instincts were ignited and it was very satisfying to overtake them each day on the downhill towards the end. On the final day we just needed to beat them by about 5m40s, which was certainly possible. I could hear the theme tune from 'The Great Escape' playing in my mind...but only when the annoyingly catchy 'Keeping On Running' gave it a few seconds of airtime (that song is now on my MP3 player and will forever remind me of the Alps and of the big, German rock singer bounding around).

We climbed up the last ascent of the race on the last day with leaden legs (maybe we were feeling a bit of fatigue?). It seemed harder than the other days, but that was probably due to the toughest course, according to consensus as well as the race director, being day seven. Once we reached the peak we knew it was downhill all the way to the finish and we set off at a decent pace over some technical terrain. After we'd dropped a fair distance the route became a forrest access road and was very easy to run down. We flew past people and eventually caught the German Team Luftwafe. However, we only had about 12ks to take the time out of their lead, almost 30 seconds per km. As a result I pushed Oli's pace a bit too much and he started flagging and stumbling over the path as it levelled out.

So what did we need to boost us to the finish? More Germans, of course. We were running on a very narrow raised path with only room for one person but a team tried to overtake Oli and nudged him off the path. Suddenly the hidden ogre errupted from Oli and I thought there was going to be a fight (I secretly hoped there would be as I had the camera ready). But then Oli sped up and the adrenaline his altercation had released sent him zooming round the remaining 5ks or so. We overtook plenty of teams, including the second women's team right before the finish line. For the finish we took in the cheers from the crowd as I videoed the experience. And it's lucky Oli got that boost since we only beat the Luftwafe by 8 seconds overall in the end, a very satisfying finish to an awesome (an overused word, but very appropriate) race.

It had been a very tough week and everyone seemed to have enjoyed every second of it. The memories will last forever, especially with the 200 photos I took of the route. And everyone we spoke to swore they'd return in 2010. Except possibly me due to my wedding...

Could it have been any better? I'm not sure I can think of anything significant, except maybe that the evenings went on a little longer than necessary due to the translations. Great job, race director Wolfie - you are a legend. I'd recommend this to anyone, but it's not worth turning up to the start unless you've put in some decent training, ideally on hills (or things like the Davos K78 for starters). Oli and I weren't well prepared but weren't in danger of a DNF at least.