Stepping Into a New Challenge￼
Since completing my first and only Ironman two years ago, I’ve been quite literally running around like a headless chicken looking for something to commit to. I love running so signed up to a few marathons with the aim of improving my PB but found I just didn’t prioritise training. As a semi-regular listener of the Rich Roll and Joe Rogan podcasts, I started to hear more about the ultra running scene which I previously assumed to be a mythical land, full of bohemians looking for some form of spiritual enlightenment. Listening to Courtney Dauwalter, David Goggins and Kilian Jornet unveiled ultra running to be a competitive sport with its own set of superstars.
What Ironman is to triathlon, UTMB is to ultra running. The UTMB world series offers runners the opportunity to qualify for the final, UTMB in Mont-Blanc, the OG and often considered the crown jewel of the ultra marathon world. Taking runners over 100 miles across the French Alps with 10,000m+ of elevation over a period of 2 days. Outside of a frankly ridiculous level of endurance, mountain ultras tackle a unique feature of night running and dealing with little or no sleep. The challenge, mystique and professionalisation of the sport sparked a flame in me which I haven’t experienced since Ironman. As a long-time collector of “junk” miles running across the flat planes of London, I felt completely out of my depth which I knew was exactly what I was looking for. Also unlike triathlon getting into the sport is fairly easy, all you need is your standard running gear with the addition of poles and a head torch.
To qualify for UTMB Mont Blanc, runners need to collect “Stones” by completing the world series events. Stones are effectively tickets to a raffle, with runners qualifying via a ballot system. It’s a clever and commercial setup, probably driven by Ironman’s acquisition of UTMB in 2021, but I’m here for it.
All series events offer finishers the ability to gain 1, 2, 3 and 4 stones by completing in one of the 25k, 50k, 100k, and 160k (100 mile) races. To try and qualify for UTMB, coach Liv (Meraki) and I selected two UTMB series events. The first being the 100k Ultra tour Snowdonia (UTS) in May’23, the only series event in the UK. The second being the 100k Val D’Aran taking place in Juy’23 in the Pyrenees. 1 of 3 “Major” qualifier events globally, Val D’Aran offers runners the ability to collect double stones. Finishing UTS and Val D’Aran would therefore give me 11 stones and a good chance (?) of qualifying for UTMB 2024.
Writing this a week after the event, I’m lying on the sofa (seemingly now an extension of my body), my toes hovering just above the laptop screen and presenting Tim Burton’s version of the full colours of the rainbow. It’s an ugly reminder of what I’ve just put myself through and I can’t help but feel it’s my body’s way of telling me it’s not angry, just disappointed. I have a sense of contentment though, twinged with a desire for more, exactly what the doctor ordered.
So UTS Snowdonia. 2,800 runners signed up across 4 distances, up from 1000 last year representing an increasing interest in the sport. I registered for the 104km event, with 6400m of elevation over 8 major ascents. Without living in mountains, it’s almost impossible to complete a run with anything close to this level of climbing. I gained some confidence by some semi-regular S&C and completing a 75km event but this still left a big question mark on the impact of the mountains. I had planned to travel solo but when a few good friends (FoT stalwarts; Jo Peterschmitt, Becky Bradbury and Emily Mohri) caught on to what I was doing, I soon had a formidable crew behind me.
The event was superbly well organised, with registration available up to 10pm the night before. We stayed at a nearby campsite. I took a Shepherds hut whilst the crew opted for a proper camping experience. We managed to get prepared by midnight with alarm clocks set for 3-4am ahead of a long day.
The race started at 5am with the sky starting to turn from darker shades of blue. Instantly we were greeted with breath-taking views, the moonlight shining off the lakes with ominous shadows of the mountains in the background. The first climb is a “gentle” 1000m ascent of Snowdon. This was perfectly timed with sunrise as seen with the below photos.
The initial ascent had runners fairly bunched up, inevitably forcing everyone to start slowly (no bad thing). There were 7 aid stations, one every 12 to 13km, offering a great range of food and drinks from jam sandwiches to Oreos. It’s imperative to make use of these given runners can expect to take 2-5hrs in each segment. They also become a mental tool to breakdown the challenge. It’s surprising just how rejuvenated one can feel from spending a good amount of time re-fuelling. Even with the support of a great crew, I spent over 1hr at aid stations across the event. There are of course highs and lows throughout, and you learn to ride these. The lowest point was the second ascent of Snowdon around km 75, the longest and steepest climb. The thought of stopping seemed to have been staved off by the notion that calling SOS would take hrs to reach me and, at that time in the evening, it was getting cold so I might as well continue. The weather was generally fantastic though, with the warmth and clear skies allowing us to see Snowdonia at its best.
Most of the terrain is considered “technical” aka not runnable. Running across slate paths with loose rock means you have to concentrate carefully. Combined with the stunning views, not once did I feel the need to put in earphones (a rarity for me). There’s a fair amount of scrambling, requiring the use of arms to climb which was actually a nice relief on the legs. I used poles for the majority of the race. These help to efficiently transfer effort away from the legs and also assist balance on descents. Some don’t need them but I suspect anyone living within the M25 took a similar approach to me.
The volunteers were amazing. Uniquely there are teams of 2 present at each summit to simply notify runners. This means being open to the most extreme elements for long periods and also camping overnight. Teams would take it in turns to sleep whilst the others provide words of encouragement to runners… there’s volunteering and then there’s this.
At the 6th aid station, around 80km, night-time settled in and headlights came on. This unearthed a new beauty as dotted veins of dim light trailed off into the dark abyss, with almost painfully bright stars above. I found the ascents easier, probably a mental trick of not seeing the summits. Oppositely descending was very tricky, requiring heightened concentration at a time of severe exhaustion and whilst the eyes became heavy, yearning for sleep.
A big shoutout to the crew, who supported impeccably. It was a long day from 4am to 2am but not once did they complain. Operating on little or no sleep, they managed to prepare my food, nutrition and replenish my kit without a hitch (although I understand my requests for Marmite were particularly frustrating). They tell me they enjoyed it… I’m still not fully convinced. This was some undertaking and I’m just in awe of their dedication, generosity and unwavering positive spirit to push me through. They were crucial in making rational decisions whilst my fatigued body and mind simply wanted to trudge along. At 88km and against my wishes, they forced a change in shoes, socks and added some blister plasters making the final section far more comfortable and therefore quicker. For the final 5km downhill I drew unexpected relief from the real belief of finishing. Still what felt like a flat out sprint translated to 7min/kms, likely driven by the feeling that my feet were stepping on constantly re-setting bear traps.
I finished at 1:30am, 20.5hrs after race start. The mixture of emotions was indescribable but what stood out was a feeling of gratitude towards the crew, my coach and to the organisers for supporting me through one of the best race experiences. I genuinely cannot recommend this event highly enough. So once again, thank you to everyone that made it happen.
It has taken a week since for my legs to recover and for energy to return but I’m now more motivated than ever. Word of advice to anyone thinking of doing this event, your boss won’t be impressed by your scrambled messages and overly emotional responses to quite normal work stresses…so do take some time off after.
Now to Val D’Aran, I’ll keep you posted. Some race stats below based on Garmin.
|Official time||20hrs 31mins|
|Time spent at aid stations||01hr 09mins|
|Fastest time||13hrs 27mins|
Freddie’s Ultra tips:
- Bring the BIG pot of Vaseline, not the small one.
- Get used to eating whilst running (not a problem for me).
- Ciele hats and moustaches are not mandatory equipment despite appearances.
- Going solo is fine for most ultras but support is highly advisable for your first >100km mountain ultra. Named FoT Crew are under contract, no poaching 😉
- Sort problems out as soon as your notice them i.e. not once the heel blister has morphed into an anaemic slug.
Congrats Freddie! If you are looking to get into ultra running – Freddie is your guy! So don’t hesitate to reach out and ask him for advice.