Douro Ultra Trail (25km) - race report

11 October 2017, 13:30

This weekend I flew to northern Portugal to run down a mountain, and it had been three years in the making. You may remember that back in 2014 I ran the entirety of Berlin Marathon with a guy named Luis who I only barely knew at the start, but by the finish line had become my brother. For the past three years he’s been trying to convince me to come and visit him in Porto, and this year I finally made it over, with my friend Alex in tow. I chose the Douro Ultra Trail race from a shortlist of Luis’s suggestions because the scenery looked beautiful, there was a 25km option (as well as 15km, 45km, and 80km) which seemed to be a good distance for having a good chat and not suffering too much. Alex has only been running for about a year and never raced a half marathon before but was keen for an adventure, which seemed to be the right spirit for this race!

Melissa race number selfie

I signed up over the summer, when entries for the 25km were a bargainous €20 (plus an extra €3 as I wanted the long-sleeved race tee). I honestly don’t know how they can put on a race for so cheap, as we ended up with the aforementioned technical tee, huge feed station, decent race medal, and a bottle of local wine, too! Having arrived in Porto on a delayed flight, we only arrived at Regua just as the pre-race briefing was starting, and to our amusement, was entirely in Portuguese! Luis and his friends translated what we needed to know, which was really only that there were some irrigation holes about 4km into our race that we needed to be aware of (in reality, the other runners were great about shouting out and indicating at each of them). Everything else was really already stated on their Facebook page and website, so if you’re travelling to this race in future years, don’t feel like you need to kill yourself to get to the briefing on time.

Alex and Melissa at the start Luis and friends at the start

We then headed downstairs to register, which was super quick and casual – each of us got a bag with our number (& timing chip), race tee, apple, and some local honey boiled sweets (hard candies). Our group then headed to an extremely nice local restaurant for dinner then to our hotel just before their midnight cutoff, ready to wake up at dawn to make the coach to the start in time. The ultra course is circular, beginning and ending in Regua, but the other distances start at other points on the route, with coaches ferrying runners to the start. The coaches for our race were super organised, each setting off once full and taking us up hugely steep and very narrow winding roads to the top of a mountain (making me very glad I didn’t choose the marathon or ultra races!). At the top of the hill was an open area with scenic views, bandstand, toilets (with no queue, omg!!), and two groups of traditional Portuguese drummers giving the whole thing a bit of gravitas. After basking in the morning sunshine for a half hour or so, the starting firecracker was pulled, and we were off downhill!

25km start area

And downhill… and downhill… actually, the first 10km were almost entirely downhill, with a mix of loose rock, scree, pavements, and even thick, fine dust that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sahara. Alex brought along his gaiters, which I thought were ridiculously overkill but actually worked out great, and I’d recommend them if you have them. The course elevation for the route this year looked to be almost entirely downhill or flat, but in reality there were still a LOT of hills. Not just steep hills, but downright ravines in places – I lost count of the number of times I had to use my hands to steady myself on trees, rocks, and the ground itself to scramble up or down a hillside, with only a few places having stone steps carved into the slope to help us out (and again, glad I wasn’t doing the ultra, where runners would be negotiating these in the dark!).

Melissa in vineyards

The result of the first 10km was to exhaust the brain, having to concentrate continuously on where the next footfall should land as well as attempting not to brake with your quads and knees (spoiler alert: my quads were wrecked anyway!). We went through several small towns along the way, wound through narrow, steep, and terraced vineyards, and absolutely stunning vistas. My photos don’t really capture the full beauty of the Douro Valley – every single scene we saw as we turned a corner could’ve been sold on a postcard or printed in a coffee table book.

Melissa and Luis official photo

Eventually we rounded a playing field and entered a larger town, where crowds of people lined the streets – we’d reached the start of the 15km “hike” option, where we got a boost from the runners waiting to start their race, but apparently missed the water stop that must’ve been there (at least we had our CamelBaks – on such a hot day, many others also missed it and were caught short before the only other pit stop).

Melissa posing

I’ve mentioned the heat, but it’s worth noting that it’s not usually 28C and sunny in October in the Douro – we hit upon a rare heatwave, so slathered ourselves in suncream, ran in our sport sunglasses and caps, and wore shorts and vests as a last celebration of summer. I wore my trusty Vivobarefoot Trail Freak shoes, which I hadn’t race in since the Transylvania Bear Race last year. These served me ridiculously well in the Transylvanian (and English) mud, but on the dry, dusty, and rocky Portuguese trails, something with a sturdier sole would’ve been a bit better (and I know understand why Vivobarefoot now make trail shoes for soft or firm ground!).

Melissa and Luis in vine canopy

In any case, Luis, Alex and I stuck together throughout the race, chatting to ourselves and the other runners throughout the race. I got very good at my two phrases in Portuguese (Hello and Thank you!), and I really liked that even with a small field (350 runners on the 25km, plus some of the faster 15km runners), there were no real stretches where you were alone, and the course was incredibly well marked with plastic tape at regular intervals so you really only just needed to follow the person ahead, or glance to see the next piece of tape. At the start, the three of us decided to take a casual pace, chatting, enjoying ourselves, and taking plenty of photos and GoPro videos to enjoy the day. There were definitely points where things got tough, but never any real low points where we stopped having fun.

Melissa and Alex in tough times Melissa and Alex selfie

When we reached the only feed station at 16km, we filled our CamelBaks and set upon the impressive array of snacks with abandon. As a salty sweater, I went straight in for the crisps, but kept coming back to the watermelon slices, too. I swear watermelon has never tasted so good in my life, so I thank the local boy scouts who spent the whole time chopping up fruit in the feed station building! Feeling fuelled but not full, we set off to conquer the final few kilometers back down into Regua, and seeing the Douro River was a big boost, even though only minutes later the course cut through a large section of vineyards that had recently been burnt by the wildfires that plagued this part of Portugal.

feed station

The whole race was a treat for the senses, but smelling the charred vines were in sharp contrast to the fresh air, flowers, and eucalyptus we’d enjoyed earlier in the day. Several other races in the area had been cancelled due to the wildfires, and indeed, we witnessed a fire with our own eyes on the drive back to Porto, so this part of the race really made us feel thankful for the unspoiled countryside we’d witnessed for the bulk of the race.

As we approached the riverside path, we looked at our GPS for the first time that day and saw we were several kilometers short, and were concerned that, even though we could see the race village, we’d have to loop around the town or something first. On reflection, our GPS measurements came up short because it’s measuring from the top down, as the crow flies. But we’d run through such elevation that the diagonal route we’d taken down and up created a discrepancy to the top-down view, meaning we’d actually run ~3km more than we’d tracked. You can tell I don’t run mountain races often – this is probably obvious to many people!

Luis, Melissa and Alex at the finish

We crossed the line at the race village, were awarded our medals and local wine bottles, and immediately the emcee started interviewing me and asking about my race and my world championships and how my health was! Turns out Luis tipped them off that we were coming and they’d clearly seen my number and put two and two together very swiftly, hahah. The race village itself was quite small, but had a good selection of food and drinks (free) as well as a bar (paid) for anyone who fancied something stronger after their race.

In the tradition of ultras, our race was held on a Saturday, which meant we were able to head back to our hotel to wash the copious dust, sweat, and salt off before heading back to Porto and exploring it the next day. We spent the morning hobbling about, exploring the city, marvelling at the vistas, and drinking or well-earned wine along the same river we’d run to the day before.

Melissa and Alex drinking our race wine

Having never been to Portugal before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Alex and I both utterly adored our time there. I’d recommend the Douro Ultra Trail to anyone who’s interested, but do not underestimate the toughness of the course. As someone who can run a 1:45 half marathon without too much effort, I expect to run this 25km downhill in about 2-2:15ish but in reality, we finish in just over 3 hours! I’d imagine if I’d done the 45km it’d probably have taken me around 5 or 6 hours, so be sure you prepare and (if possible) get some trail experience on hard, rocky ground, which I think would’ve really helped me.

In terms of enjoyment, adventure, and value for money, you really can’t beat the Douro Ultra Trail. I’m only sorry it took me three years to actually take Luis up on his offer!

Douro Ultra Trail (25km), 7 October 2017, 3:04:18

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British Transplant Games: North Lanarkshire 2017

11 August 2017, 15:28

Hot on the heels of the World Transplant Games came this year’s British Transplant Games – yet more running around a track! In 2015, the British games came before the Worlds, which made them into a kind of practice-run to check your fitness and make sure that everything’s on track, but having them only a few weeks after the Worlds this time around just made them feel a bit… deflated and overshadowed, which was a shame.

It didn’t help that they were held in North Lanarkshire (“outside Glasgow” to you and me) and were therefore a costly and lengthy journey for quite a lot of people, which meant that a significant proportion of the athletes who’d competed in Malaga weren’t there this year. To be fair, my enthusiasm for these games was at an all-time low, and I’d really only agreed to run after my team manager offered to share her hotel room and drive me around, leaving just the cost of the flight to Glasgow.

BTG17 - Haggi with Ellie and Ruth
Haggi the haggis! With Ellie and Ruth…

In the weeks between Malaga and North Lanarkshire I’d only managed to run a handful of times (and only one speed session), such is the way of post-competition illness and recovery, but I physically felt like I still had the bulk of my speedwork training in my legs. But my motivation and enthusiasm were very low, and the weather for my first event really didn’t help.

The mini marathon was held in the gorgeous Strathclyde Country Park (location of the Commonwealth Games triathlon), but unfortunately it absolutely chucked it down for a good two hours before the start, meaning we were all soaked, shivvering (I could actually see my breath!), and huddled together in the few bits of shelter available to us. So pretty much the polar opposite to the oppressive heat in Malaga!

BTG 17 - poncho

If you’ve ever tried to run in a poncho, I wouldn’t recommend it! You’ve basically got to hold your arms out underneath to keep it from sticking to your legs and ending up around your chest! But it was better than not warming up at all, and after the start was delayed several times, leaving us standing in the starting pen (minus our ponchos) for a further 20min, I was starting to wonder what I was doing there at all, and all the places I’d much rather be.

But eventually we set off, and I took the lead for the women’s 3km circuit along the loch. It was surprisingly hilly, but at least our paths were all paved, leaving only some careful footing on the downhills and around areas full of debris left from the previous heavy rain. Said rain held off for the race itself (I guess it decided we were already wet enough), and apart from having to shout at some marshals who seemed surprised to see me, the race itself went smoothly enough.

I was hoping to have a bit of breathing space the way I had in Malaga, but fellow athletes Nadia and Ellie REALLY kept me on my toes this year! I could hear they were close behind me for pretty much the entire race, and I didn’t get a single second to relax as I gunned it hard for the entire route. I crossed the finish line first, but only just – the difference between myself in first and Ellie in third couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds at most! But it meant I got to retain my “first lady” trophy for another year, and earned my first gold of the games, which always makes me feel a little better (though a hot shower might’ve trumped it this year!)

BTG17 - with Kings teammates
BTG17 - with Ryan, first man

The next day saw us on the track bright and early for the 1500m, traditionally my strongest of the track races. I set off at a fairly aggressive pace, but with my usual competitor, Orla, out of action this year with a stress fracture, I wasn’t quite sure who’d come out to play, so to speak. I knew that Nadia and Ellie were behind me again, but I didn’t allow myself a quick peek backwards on the bend until the second lap, when I saw they were together about 200m behind. I kept up my pace during the third lap, and then, as I rounded into the 4th and final lap, I waited to hear the next bell, which felt quite far behind, enough to give myself a bit of a breather coming into the finish. I hadn’t quite gained my breath when I was able to see Ellie sneak past Nadia right near the end to flip their positions from the night before, with my friend Ruth finishing in 4th. I might add that all of us are in our 30s, too – clearly the toughest age group for female transplant athletes!!

I then had quite a few hours to rest, eat, and cheer on my Kings College Hospital teammates (what little there were this year!) before the 200m after lunchtime. The 200m is traditionally my weakest event, but with so many of the Team GB athletes either absent or injured, it turned out that I was the only one in my age category on the start line. Score! An opportunity to just jog it in, right?

BTG17 - with Emma and Ayesha

Not really – in my same heat were the 20 year olds (Emma and Ayesha, pictured above) but also, strangely, the 12-14 year olds! This was definitely a first, competing against children! And my pride dictated that I couldn’t be beaten by children, and I knew one of the Kings girls was really quick, so I actually had to push myself, finishing second overall in a time less than a second over my PB in Malaga (and yes, I beat all the children).

BTG17 - 200m with Emma
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

So I enjoyed a very rare lone podium moment to do my best model poses!

BTG17 - lone 200m podium

I then had about a half hour break before the 400m, but I’d clearly given my legs more of a bashing than I’d realised in the 200m, because as I rounded the final curve into the finishing straight, my legs just… died. I mean, it felt like I was swimming in treacle and everything was in slow-motion, disconnected and just awful. I’ve never ever felt this way in any run before of any distance, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what the cause was. But apparently Ellie oddly had the same phenomenon – the way she put it, she hit a wall at that final straight as well, but was perplexed as to why I wasn’t getting any further away from her!

Note: it’s literally only now, two weeks later, as I’m writing up this review that I noticed I actually ran a PB in the 400m! This might be some explanation as to why I felt so bad, as it’s likely my legs started out at 200m pace!

BTG17 - 400m
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Just a brief aside at this point to say that this was not only Ellie’s first year at the British Transplant Games, but she had only had her liver transplant 6 months before!! She and her husband are race directors for the Running the Rift marathon in Uganda, and you can read more about her transplant story here (and you should!).

BTG17 - 400m podium with Ellie and Ruth
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

At this point in the Games I’d normally be pleading with our team captain to please not make me run the mixed 100m relay, but the eclectic scheduling this year (with the 800m being run after the relay, which is traditionally the last event) plus the fact that the only runners on our team this year were all distance runners (and all of us running the 800m), meant that I didn’t even have to plead – no relay for Team Kings, hurrah!

But I was already absolutely shattered, and really I just wanted to get the 800m over and done with and get to the airport to fly home. So when the gun eventually went off, I led a pretty sedate pace around the track – even a bit slower than my 1500m pace, purely because I knew I was knackered and the horrible finishing straight of the 400m was fresh in my mind. Nadia had already headed home by this point so it was just Ellie behind me, and I could hear she was close behind me in Lane 1. She stuck on my tail until the last 200m or so, and I really only saw her make her move in the last 100m, when it was too late to really answer (as if my legs had anything left to give!).

Even though I got silver, I crossed the line with the biggest smile of the day – it felt right that such a strong athlete should get to go home with a gold, and she had certainly earned that!

The final event of the Games actually came as I was boarding my (rather delayed) flight back to London, when my team captain texted me to say that I’d just been jointly awarded Best Senior Female with another athlete! Even though I’ve won lots of medals in my last five years competing at the Games, I’ve never ever come close to the best age group award (across all the sports), and I was chuffed to bits to hear I’d been given this honour!

BTG17 - medal haul

And now, with my track running out of the way, I’m so pleased I can finally head back to some long and hilly trail runs in preparation for a hilly 25km race in Portugal in October – much closer to the running I love the most right now!

British Transplant Games – North Lanarkshire 29-30 July 2017

3k Mini Marathon: 12:42 (gold and trophy)
1500m: 5:41.94 (gold)
800m: 2:54.89 (silver)
400m: 1:09.23 (gold & PB)
200m: 32:95 (gold)
Best Senior Female trophy – tied with Kathryn Glover

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World Transplant Games - Malaga 2017 - race report

7 July 2017, 17:02

I’ve been amiss in posting the past few months, not for lack of running (or even interesting things to say!) but entirely down to lack of time to actually get my thoughts recorded. In May we went to Copenhagen to visit friends I’ve known for years through running, then a few weeks later we visited Southeastern Turkey for a wedding where I ran along the incredible Lycian Way before diving into ice-blue waters.

And 2.5 weeks before the Games, I ran a time-trial 5k with a friend on pacing duties that did not go so well. We were aiming for a 20min 5k, which should’ve been within my skillset, but I made him work harder than I was proud of, I felt like my heart rate was red-lining the entire time, and even though I crossed the finish line as first lady, I didn’t feel proud or triumphant – just shattered and a bit embarrassed.

So off the back of that, I laid everything out to my coach and she formulated what was probably the toughest two weeks of training I’ve had in the entire four years I’ve been with her. It also coincided with a rare heatwave in London, which meant that for the fortnight preceding the Games, I was cycling to my office job (35min, 10k), working a full day, cycling to Regents Park (35min), putting in 90min on the dirt track with my coach, often in 30+C heat, then cycling home (45min), picking up dinner on the way, shoving food in my mouth and falling asleep. Repeat pretty much daily, though sometimes the track session would be replaced by a solo tempo run or an occasional recovery run. But I didn’t have a single rest day in the leadup, and it was really just fine-tuning my formwork and pacing, which saw me shaving 8 seconds off my 800m and 3 seconds off my 400m in the span of two weeks. Note that this is on top of the 6 months of endurance and strength training I’d already been doing – you can’t expect to ONLY train two weeks for events of this calibre!!

So I boarded the flight to Malaga feeling prepared. but definitely guarded. Training in heat wave conditions was definitely helpful to prepare for the 30-35C temps in southern Spain, but mentally I felt a lot of pressure to live up to the 6 gold medals I earned at the previous Games in Argentina, and knowing that I had ten supporters flying in from around the globe to watch me only added to the pressure.

Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony this year was held in the historical bullring, and the athletes parade was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Definitely a great way to start the Games off right!

Opening Ceremony

My first event of the week was the 5km Road Race, which is my strongest event and one I’m most comfortable with as a distance runner. I’d vastly prefer a 10k or even half marathon, but as far as races go, at least I’m in my element with a mass start and two laps around a closed course.

Road Race

The race looped around the Malaga port, passing by a Picasso Museum, aquarium, several sculptures, and an enormous yacht as well as a historic lighthouse, so at least I had pretty things to look at to distract me from my screaming legs and lungs. Even though the race started at 9am, it was already 29C and several athletes collapsed on the course from heat exhaustion, so I cannot stress enough how tough the conditions were!

Road Race
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race
Photo credit: James O’Brien

The two loop course also contained a handy out-and-back section which is always helpful when racing – it means you can see the position of the competitors behind you instead of relying on your spectators to shout out info. It meant I could also tell my teammate Ruth that she was still in silver medal position on the second loop, as the ladies between her and I were in different age categories.

Road Race
Post race selfie – I said it was tough!!

Thankfully, I was able to retain my world championship title by finishing first lady (in any age category), winning gold in the 30-39 age category as well as team gold for women of any age (first 3 females across the line win points for the team), finishing in 18:57! Though take that with a grain of salt, as many athletes’ GPS recorded it as being significantly shorter than 5km (more like 4.5km)!

Road Race podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Road Race

Then it was (thankfully!) three full days of rest and recovery around Malaga and Torremolinos to prepare for the track events on Friday and Saturday. In Argentina, my events were pretty nicely spread, with one in the morning and another in the afternoon on each day, but the scheduling was… eclectic if I’m being charitable, and ramshackle if I’m not. Schedules were only finalised at 6:30 on the morning of competition, started two hours late, and ended up with my 1500m being raced at 3pm in the sizzling heat of the day, with a mere 10 minutes of rest before the 400m. Many, many expletives were uttered, but there wasn’t anything to be done but trust in my training and know that all the other athletes were in the same boat.

The 1500m is traditionally my strongest track event, and one I enjoy the most at the British Games, where I often have Belfast athlete Orla Smyth to play with. I love competing against her as she’s a super strong runner who always pushes me to do my best and get to put some strategy into play. In short, it’s much more fun when Orla’s running, too.

1500m Orla and I
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

So as the gun went off, we both broke away from the pack and I settled into Lane 1, with her barely a stride behind me. I could hear her breath so I knew she was close, and she maintained that position for the first two laps.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

Traditionally, I like to make my move and pick up the pace in Lap 3, but I realised during this lap that I couldn’t hear her breath any longer, and by the time we started Lap 4, her bell sounded about 200m behind me so I knew I just had to push on through the heat to the finish and take gold, only 4 seconds slower than my World Record time I set in Argentina. Considering it felt like we were being melted from above as well as the heat coming up from the track itself, I’ll definitely take that!

1500m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

No sooner had we come off the track from the 1500m, though, and they were already calling for the 400m. In all, we had ten minutes between races, which was in no way enough time to recover, let alone stretch, cool down, and warm back up for the race. But again, there wasn’t anything to be done, so we toed the start line again, with me in Lane 3 and Orla ahead of me in Lane 4, for what’s traditionally her strongest race (she left me in the dust at the British Games last year!).

But it seems that all the intense heat training with an emphasis on 400m and 200m really paid off! I started behind (such is the way of the staggered start), but as we rounded the final curve into the last 100m, I could see her ahead of me and something in my brain said “this is within your grasp, GO FOR IT” and I just pushed it as hard as I could, concentrating on high arms, high knees and gained ground right up to the finish line…

400m Orla and 1
400m Orla and I

…where it was so close that neither she nor I could say who won, and neither could our friends on the line awaiting the next race, nor our friends in the stands. In the end, we had to wait over an hour before the Photo Finish Booth (thank god there was one!) made a decision and we were awarded our medals. In the end it was decided that I won by one one hundredths of a second, possibly the closest finish I’ve ever had in my life. It honestly could’ve gone either way, and I’d initially thought I’d lost it, so it really is a shame that it couldn’t have been awarded as joint gold.

400m podium
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a brutal day on the track, it was back to the hotel for a very welcome dinner and an even more welcome night’s sleep before returning to the stadium for the second day of athletics. Unfortunately the previous days’ racing had aggravated a stress fracture Orla had suffered in the leadup to the competition, meaning she had to pull out of the 800m. This is normally the race where we’re most evenly pitched, so I was gutted for her that she couldn’t put all her hard work into one last race.

Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

As it turned out, the 800m was the closest thing I had to a time trial the whole Games, with quite a bit of breathing room between me and the Iranian lady in silver position. But even so, I remember coming into the finishing straight and hearing the crowd really pick up their cheers and thinking “are they cheering because I’m finishing, or because she’s gaining on me??” and picking up my pace in paranoia that she’d pull out a last second victory over me like I’d just done in the 400!

After the 800m, I had an hour or two to think about whether I wanted to run the 200m race. Now, the 200 is traditionally my weakest event, and the one that takes the most out of me, and I’d really only put my name down thinking it’d be a wildcard and I’d only run it if it was a guaranteed medal. But I was feeling ballsy on the day, and we’d practised the 200m form and pacing so much in training that I decided to run it, even though World Record holder and fellow teammate Emma Wiltshire was also on the starting sheet.

Photo credit: James O’Brien

The other girls were all sprinters and therefore using starting blocks, but I refused to allow myself to be intimidated and just ran as hard as I could with my arms and knees high, pushing, pushing pushing until I crossed the line… for a new PB and bronze! Honestly, I think I was the most chuffed about this bronze than some of the Golds, and it would turn out to be my only PB on the track this year.

200m podium

Finally, the last events of the day were the 4×400m relays, with us ladies up first and the men directly after. With a few runners out for injury or other event conflicts, we fielded a team of myself, Emma Wiltshire, champion 100m sprinter Emma Hilton, and fellow Road Race team winner Marie Devine. Marie set off first, holding her own against the Hungarians and Argentinians, with Emma Hilton gaining ground in her lap to put us in the lead. Emma Wiltshire further strengthened our lead, so by the time I picked up the baton for the anchor leg (they put me on anchor?!!?), I merely had to maintain what we had. In the end, I think I gained a little bit more ground, but was able to finish comfortably for my 6th gold medal of the games.

4x400m relay
Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

After a quick closing ceremony, it was back to the hotel to shower and change before the Gala Dinner, where Team GB were awarded the team prize, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering we absolutely dominated the medal table from start to finish, earning more gold medals than the second place team (Team USA) had total medals.

As I like to tell people, the World Transplant Games are as much a reflection of the nation’s health service as they are the athlete’s abilities. And as every single athlete who competed had to cheat death just to get to the start line, it really is the most inspiring week of athletics you’ll ever experience. The addition of events for donors this year made it even more special, from the standing ovation received by the donors in the opening ceremony right down to the special medals awarded for the different donor events. You could feel the gratitude not just from the athletes but also from the supporters like my family and friends, who wouldn’t have me around if it wasn’t for my donor.

Team Fehr
Team Fehr, minus Paul and Claire who joined later in the week!

Looking at the medal result between Argentina and Malaga, you may be forgiven for assuming that this year’s haul was inevitable, but it absolutely wasn’t. I was hoping to maybe win gold in the Road Race and 1500m again, but these Games have absolutely exceeded my expectations. The competition was fierce this year, and there were some incredible feats of athleticism on display, truly showing what is possible post-transplant. As it turns out, my 8th rebirthday of my own bone marrow transplant is tomorrow, a timely reminder of the day that my life began again, a life I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my donor.

All the medals

World Transplant Games – Malaga 25 June – 2 July 2017

5k Road Race: 18:57 (gold) & women’s team (gold)
1500m: 5:40 (gold)
800m: 2:48:74 (gold)
400m: 1:11:39 (gold)
200m: 32:07 (bronze) (PB)
Women’s 4×400m relay: (gold)

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London Marathon 2017 - race report

25 April 2017, 11:27

Having been seriously ill for the first third of last year, I had to defer my London Marathon place to this year. Beyond giving me a sense of humility, perspective, and appreciation for my health, it also gave me the renewed vigour in my training to not take this opportunity for granted. It took pretty much all of 2016 for my body to recover (both from the illness and my first ultra on an accelerated training schedule) and my training since January has also been a bit more experimental than usual.

On my request, I’ve been doing a lot more low carb, fat-adapted cardio training, plus my coach Barbara has been working a lot with me on muscle activation and running form. Cue lots of targeted strength training (hello Monday night 500x park bench stepups!), and my longest runs were only barely 3hrs this time around. But I felt like my previous years’ marathon pace of 5min/km (8min/mi) was still a good bet, so I set off with the mindset to try and “tickle my PB” of 3:30 by keeping a relaxed and controlled first half.

A 20min wait for a bus followed by a further 10min wait for a train (then the 15min walk from Maze Hill to the Green Start!) left me entering the start zone just as the last calls for the baggage trucks were being announced. From there I joined one of the enormous toilet queues, finally getting to the front at 9:58! It meant I didn’t get to meet up with my friend Steph (we had a loose plan to run together since we were going for the same time and in the same pen), and I don’t even know where my start pen was meant to be, but I crossed the line at 10:02 determined to not let it stress me. I opted for my usual road marathon choice of one headphone only with my carefully curated marathon playlist – easy, chilled songs at the start, getting gradually more intense throughout the race when I need the boost. Having one ear free means I can hear the crowd shout my name, or equally, try to tune out the screaming and focus on my music instead when I need to.

London marathon 2017 - mile 12 London marathon 2017 - mile 12
Looking fresh at Mile 12

This was my first big race using my AppleWatch (running the brilliant Runmeter app) as my GPS/pace watch, and I freaking loved it. I set up a custom screen on Runmeter that just shows me my elapsed time and current pace in a large font, so I did a lot of checking my pace in the first half and adjusting my legs faster or slower as needed to stay on that 5:00 target. I was toying with turning off the heart rate monitoring during the race to save battery, but in the end I kept it on more for the record of it than anything else, and it seemed to stay in the mid-170s throughout (Zone 3 for me). The AppleWatch battery itself is brilliant, but I will say that being connected to the phone through bluetooth for extended periods of time absolutely kills my phone’s (5S) battery, so I needed to run with that in a battery case. But considering I threw my Garmin in the bin after near-continuous “Finding satellite” failures plus a typeface I could barely read at a glance, I am all aboard the AppleWatch-for-running train!

For some people, running with a phone, battery, multiple gels, headphones, and salt caps might be an issue, but hey, that’s why I design activewear! With my “sew your own activewear” book deadline being the day after the marathon, my publishers asked if I could run it in designs from the book to help with marketing down the line. I’ve run all 6 of my previous marathons in me-made gear, but I usually wear a Run dem Crew shirt or vest on top. This time I wanted to both rep my crew AND show off my book designs, so I made my shorts and vest from modified designs which will appear in my book (coming out early 2018), and took the vest up to Big Teezar in Camden to get the RDC logo and my name vinyl printed onto the front. The shorts are actually a leggings design from my book chopped off above the knee (which unfortunately cuts out a lot of the design interest!) with an additional back waistband pocket bringing the pocket total up to FIVE. FIVE BIG POCKETS, PEOPLE. My vest takes the offset side seams of one design in the book, but uses the neckline and armholes of a different vest design from the book, and I tweaked the ease to be somewhere between close- and loose-fitting. I know what I like for racing, and I wanted it to be perfect!

London marathon 2017
Running through Mile 21, photo by Simon Roberts

The colour scheme started with the flame-print lycra I got printed at FunkiFabrics, using rust supplex, red supplex, and yellow chitosante down the side pockets, and reusing the red and yellow in the vest top. I was trying not to see it as McDonalds (or Serpentine!), but a friend said I was channelling Baywatch and Hulk Hogan, so I’m going to go with that!!

But back to the race – in a marathon my goal is to reach the first half as controlled and relaxed as possible, having spent minimal energy. So I settled into my marathon pace, kept things relaxed, and kept an eye out for my husband at Mile 12 in our old neighbourhood. Seeing Princes Harry, William, and Kate cheering at maritime Greenwich was more than a little surreal, and running into my 2014 #ExtraMile buddy Ibi on the course at Mile 3 was kinda crazy, but for the most part south London was just a chillaxed blur.

One thing I love about the London course is that, if you run around a 3:30 pace, you get to see the Elites coming down The Highway around their KM35 as you’re going up the opposite side of the road approaching the halfway point. This means I got to see Wanjiru, Bekele and the others in full form from only a few metres away, but also cheer on my amaaaaaazing friend Tom Payn repping his RDC vest on his way to a 2:22 finish! I crossed halfway bang on schedule at 1:46, and it was shortly after this that my first muscle issue began to appear – a curious pain on the top of my left ankle. It got bad enough that at one point I actually stopped to loosen my shoelace, but I’m still not sure what the issue was, as I’ve never had a pain there before in my life (and post-race it was definitely red and angry).

London marathon 2017 - mile 23
Looking decidedly more haggard at Mile 23…

But soon I had bigger issues to worry about, as I began to get some very tight cramps/knots in both quads at the same place – inner thigh a few inches above the knee – again, a strange place and a first for me in any run. This tightness started around the Isle of Dogs and slowed my pace by a few seconds per km. I stopped to stretch out my quads at one point to try and shift it, as well as a quick thumb-massage, but to no avail. It gradually got worse, and by Canary Wharf and Poplar it felt like I had a fist-sized rock in each thigh, making every step painful and making maintaining pace difficult. I kept telling myself “Just make it to Mile 21 [where the RDC cheer station is] and maybe Barbara [my coach] can massage it out…” Mile 21 is incredibly motivating at the best of times, but when you’re suffering, the boost it gives is immeasurable. Hell, even just knowing that it’s coming up will push you to carry on, and when I arrived to a million familiar smiles, high fives, confetti cannon, and hugs, it was just the boost I needed. I found out that Barbara wasn’t there, though (having had to cover a class that day) so I resigned myself to a painful last five miles.

The theme for this year’s London marathon was “Reason to Run”, and to be honest, I was struggling with this in the leadup. I mean, I wasn’t running for a charity, or in the memory of someone, or even a particular time. But in those last few miles, when the pain in my legs was screaming at me to “JUST WALK”, I found my reason to run. My mind fought back, and its ammunition was the mantra “You are alive, and you can run.”

London marathon 2017

The pain in my legs and ankle got worse, plus somewhere along the Embankment the back of my knee started to pop, leading me to try to stretch out my quads again after my leg nearly gave out entirely a few times (apologies to the spectators who got to hear a string of continuous F-bombs…), and finally I just realised that I needed to put my head down and push through whatever else was coming, even if it meant falling flat on my face. So I sucked it up, willed myself forward, and remembered that I was privileged not only to be alive, but to be running again. And despite all the above, I managed to pick up the pace in the last mile for a final finish time of 3:38:58 – not quite tickling my PB as I’d hoped, but still a GFA (guaranteed entry for next year) and a Boston Qualifier, so ultimately worth the pain.

London marathon 2017

So what went wrong this time around? Well, I always say that I learn something from every single marathon, and the take-home lessons for me this time around were:

  1. Pre-race massages are NOT optional. A yoga session the day before helped, but I know that tightness in my hamstrings and hip flexors was likely the cause of my quad distress. I was lax on my massages this year, and I need to do better in future.

  2. I need to increase my Magnesium levels during marathon training. I’ve known for years that I’m a “salty sweater” and a routine blood test a few weeks before the race revealed my Magnesium levels were low, but I found out too late to do much about it. I took two salt caps during the race, but it’s no replacement for regular stores and likely caused the cramping issues.

London marathon 2017

But it wasn’t all bad, and I really do take on board lessons I’ve learned in previous marathons, too. I’m particularly proud of my rock-solid pacing this year, holding back and staying strictly on target marathon pace, especially in the first 10k when it’s tempting to go faster because you feel fine and easy (learnt in London marathon 2014).

London marathon 2017 splits
Check out dem splits! (the min/km column)

I was also absolutely on-point with my nutrition, taking either a gel or two ShotBloks every 5km up to 35 (I brought one for 40km, but I hardly ever take it, and this year was no different) even when I was zero desire to shove another down my face and I don’t feel like I need it and salt caps at halfway and again at Canary Wharf (30km). I also did a great job at staying relaxed in the first half, sticking to my aim of using as little energy as possible to reach halfway. In past years I get overexcited, weave around people too much, and high five too many kids (sorry kids, but that takes energy!), and it really comes back to bite me later in the race. And finally, in the latter stages, I walked through the water stations (learnt in Berlin 2014), and stopped to stretch out my legs when something was tight (it didn’t actually fix it this time, but I learnt in Copenhagen 2013 that a few shorts stops and walking breaks only adds a negligible amount of time).

London marathon 2017

Marathons are an interesting challenge. You can do everything right in training, have perfect weather (albeit a bit too sunny for my liking), the right mindset, but still have things go wrong. You just have to learn from them, come back stronger, and try again next time. I think it’s part of the reason why I keep coming back to the marathon distance – I know I have a sub-3:30 in me – I just have to get all the little pieces in place (plus have some luck with the weather) and have the right day. But there’s no rush – I know my day will come.

London marathon 2017

Virgin Money London Marathon, 23 April 2017, 3:38:58

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Surrey Badger half marathon - race report

22 March 2017, 09:57

I didn’t mean to run this race.

When Events to Live made an announcement a month or so ago that, after ten years of putting on races, this race would be their last, I was really quite sad. ETL are one of the very few events companies that I would go and enter races from specifically because they were putting them on. They always chose fantastic, interesting routes around the Surrey Hills, yes, but you could just tell that the organisers cared deeply about the people running it and there was always a family feel to each one. Their best known race is undoubtedly Bacchus (which I’ve run twice and will carry on, organised by Denbies Winery in the future), but their smaller races have been just as enjoyable for me, and I know that I will have a fabulously good time whenever I sign up to an ETL race. I just thought I’d have years to try them all!

When they announced that Surrey Badger half would be their last, I didn’t think I’d be able to run it, as it was only a few weeks after Cambridge Half and the day after a big Team GB training session in Coventry, where I’d be running a hard track session. But as it turned out, I just ended up doing some easy miles on the track with my teammate Ruth instead (another trail runner and Bacchus alumni), and after I got home that evening I was still feeling good, but unsure about where I fancied heading for my planned “two hour trail, HR zone 2” run in the morning.

Badger selfie

And then I saw ETL tweet that on-the-day entries would be available for the Badger. And miraculously, engineering works had spared the Waterloo-Dorking line so I could get down there for the start. It seemed like the Universe was pointing towards me moving my planned trail run to the Surrey Hills instead, and so I got up early and hopped on a train for the second day in a row.

Usually I race in a Run dem Crew tee to pay back my crew for everything they’ve done for me, my health, and my running, but this time around I wanted to run as a celebration for everything ETL had done for the running community and my growing love of long trail runs (if it wasn’t for their runs, I doubt I would’ve signed up for Transylvania, for instance!). So instead I wore my Bacchus 2013 tee, paired with my Steeplechase capris made in fabric designed by Laurie King, who designs all the medals and shirts for the ETL races and is well known in the area (prompting lots of compliments from other runners!).

Melissa and Laurie at the Badger half
Myself and Laurie King, who designed both my capri fabric and my Bacchus race tee!

I’d never run this particular course before, but, having studied the route on the train ride down, it appeared to be fairly similar to the 2nd lap of their Three Molehills race, which I’d run a few years back in biblical weather. The Badger takes a nice loop around the vineyards to thin out the field, then a few straight miles on a tarmac path along the motorway – easily the most boring part of the race, but it meant I was able to get some decent speed in and also meet a nice chap named David, who was running it for the third time and hoping to break 2 hours. That’s the other thing – I always end up chatting to people more in trail races than road, and I kept catching up with David throughout the race and saying hello.

As I meant to treat this as a training run rather than a race, I set off thinking I’d keep the pace relaxed and just enjoy myself and the gorgeous scenery and spring flowers. I wasn’t vigilant about staying in heart rate Zone 2, but I didn’t want it to go too high either, mind. Once the route finally left the motorway, it was all trail and logging roads, and a ton of hills!

Badger elevation

Now, I’ll take an undulating course over a flat one any day as I just think the variation is more interesting, but in the spirit of keeping my heart rate down, I opted to walk up nearly all of the hills. This meant that I was passed by a few stalwarts chugging away up the hill, but in every single occasion, once I reached the top of the hill feeling fresh as a daisy, I’d blow past them and never see them again. So what started off as a “preserve the HR” strategy actually ended up being a speed strategy! For years I was that runner who thought that walking was giving up, but seriously, I’m won over to the ultra mindset now – walking up hills frees you up to be able to run harder on the flats and downhills, plus gives you an opportunity to eat or drink and actually get it down. It just makes sense.

What started off as a training run mindset gradually ended up morphing into “just let the legs do what they want to do” run instead, so at times that meant walking, but at other times it meant just letting loose like a Kenyan. I think this freedom from a set pace goal plus the gorgeous woodland scenery went a long way towards this being one of my most enjoyable runs for ages. I also noticed that, just like in Cambridge, I caught a second wind around Mile 10 or so and just flew, really easy strides, passing people left and right (including David, who I’d been just behind for most of the race) and just feeling like it had all come together. I continued that streak into a sprint across the finish line with 1:56 on the clock, then turned around to cheer rather than join the teeshirt queue just to see if my new friend would make it in time. I waited what felt like an eternity, cheered in a few more runners, and there he was, finishing in 1:58 with a massive grin on his face.

Badger tee and beer

There weren’t any medals for this race, but instead we got a lovely teeshirt (which I’ll actually wear and cherish!), plus a bottle of beer and chocolate and biscuits galore (not seen in photo – already eaten!). Which isn’t quite the post-race hog roast and wine that Bacchus delivers, but an awfully fine end to a fine, fine race.

Badger beer selfie

And if Events to Live had to pick a final race in order to move on to new things, then they couldn’t have gone out on a bigger high. They’ve created quite a legacy in the Surrey trail running world, and they will be sorely missed.

Post-race Badger pose

Spring Surrey Badger, 19 March 2017, 1:56:26

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Cambridge Half Marathon 2017 - race report

8 March 2017, 10:52

I never quite got around to giving you all a winter training update (what can I say, running your own business whilst marathon training really leaves little time for anything else!), but the short version is that it’s been going well. After putting on a few extra pounds over Christmas and generally feeling “blah”, I returned to my good friend Maffetone in a big way. Low-carb isn’t the enemy of endurance training, it turns out, and I highly recommend the book Primal Endurance as a good blueprint for how to maximise training gains while eating low-carb. I even bought a copy of it for my coach so she can adjust my marathon training plan a bit, as I’ve been struggling with interval work in the meantime.

I only mention this as it’s tangentially important to lessons learned during the Cambridge half. Much more relevant, though, is my medical history, as I’ve had two separate illnesses during training – a head cold in January that miraculously only lasted a week (since my transplant, I’m lucky if I’m over a bug in 3 weeks!), and a sinus infection that left me in bed and hopped up on Night Nurse the week leading up to this race.

Granted, I did start to feel a bit perkier on Friday and Saturday, but earlier in the week it was looking like I’d not even be able to party pace it, let alone gun for the PB as I’d hoped. But with my energy levels back up to about 80% and some well-planned nose blowing the morning of the race, I had re-aligned my expectations again to try and treat it as a solid training run. The weather forecast deteriorated as my health improved, however, leaving us with freezing temperatures (6C), pouring rain, and high winds on race morning. Luckily I came prepared – full leggings, thermal long-sleeved top (with hand mitts!), and RDC shirt to run in, plus a sacrificial jumper and hat for the start as well as the ever-chic binbag to keep the wind and rain off (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!).

Binbag at the start

A sub-1:45 predicted finish placed me in the fastest start pen with the bulk of the club runners, so I positioned myself near the back and mentally prepared myself to be overtaken a lot. The rain came lashing down almost the second we started, which helped to keep me from getting too excited in the first few miles, as did the general crowding through the one-lane sections through the city centre. Since my AppleWatch (running Runmeter) was under my long sleeve, I generally ran this race on feel for “comfortably hard”/tempo pace, and only pulled up my sleeve to check my actual pace a handful of times (and was generally pleased that I was going faster than I’d thought).

When I previously ran this race in 2015 it was comprised of two loops, mostly through town, but last year they switched to a single-loop course to increase the numbers (as single loops can take the full width of road instead of splitting in half for Lap One / Lap Two runners). The route now starts and ends on Midsummer Common, goes through the city centre and past Kings College, then heads out into the countryside to Trumpington and back around before taking some nice twisty-turny bits through town and then repeating the first 2-3 miles of the race to finish at Midsummer Common again.

I personally give the new route two thumbs up – I really like two lap courses in unfamiliar towns as I visually know how far I’ve got to go the second time around, but repeating the first/last few miles of the course serves the same purpose for me, and I quite liked seeing a bit of countryside and fields, even if they were really windy and sparsely supported. Speaking of support, my favourite cheerer of the day was a little dog riding in its owner’s front bike basket, barking support as his owner rode alongside the runners! Very Cambridge.

As for my race, I continued along at my “comfortably hard” pace for the first 7 miles with no real issues. I ran into my friend Ben from RDC just before Mile 6 and ran with him for a few minutes before he needed to stop and stretch out his ankle, but I was otherwise on my own and without headphones (as per race rules). I only grabbed a few sips of water at the stations at Miles 2 and 6, but when I hit Mile 7 I could feel myself dimming and knew I’d need to grab a gel at the Mile 8 station (thankfully they were High 5 isotonic, a brand I’d tried and liked in the past). My months of training under my cardio heart rate threshold had done wonders for my fat-burning ability, but at the pace I was going I know my body would be consuming a mix of fat and glycogen, and at Mile 7 the glycogen stores were just a bit too low. But the gel at Mile 8 (and half of another at Mile 10) really did the trick, gave me a sugar high (it’s been so long since I’ve eaten anything sugar that carrots honestly taste sweet!), and helped me to glide on through to the finish maintaining that same pace. So now I know that I can easily go a good 6 miles at slightly-faster-than-marathon-pace without the need for fuelling, so I can plan my nutrition for London marathon accordingly.

Cambridge Half medal

Even though I was overtaken quite a bit at the start of the race (and the 1:45 pacers when I stopped to open my gel packet at Mile 10), I ended up passing a ton of people in the last few miles, as normally happens when you pace a race well. This is always a terrific boost no matter what the distance, and I sprinted the last few hundred meters to eek out a time of 1:45:59. Now, this is a full 9 minutes slower than my PB (set at Bath Half in 2014), but considering I was still nursing a sinus infection and fiddling with low carb training, I feel that’s a time I can really be proud of. Coming into the race, I’d felt that my planned marathon pace of 5:00/km (8min/mi) was still nowhere near comfortable, yet during this race I maintained an average 4:50/km and felt good. So on top of the nutritional lessons, I’m feeling much more confident that I can maintain my planned marathon pace, especially with another month and a half of training, strength work, and a bit of weight loss, besides.

In fact, the only downside to the entire race was after it ended. The race numbers were allocated based on estimated finish time (so low numbers = faster runners) and the baggage tents were organised based on race number… meaning that everyone finishing at the same time had to join a massive queue for one or two handlers, while the rest sat empty. This would’ve been merely frustrating if not for the fact that it was freezing, we were all wet, not given space blankets, and the VIP area placement made it impossible to distinguish any of the queues from each other. A whippet-thin runner in front of me was literally convulsing with cold and everyone was getting numb in the 30-50min wait to get to whatever dry clothes they’d packed in their kit bags. I don’t know how the organisers could’ve done the bag check so brilliantly in the past yet made such a stupid mistake this year, but seriously guys – BAGGAGE CHECK BASED ON SURNAME. Or assign race numbers randomly. One of the two – it’s not difficult.

Cambridge Half medal

It’s a real shame that the frankly dangerous baggage chaos put a downer on an otherwise excellent race. Assuming they’ll take my advice above for next year, it’s a race I can definitely recommend. It’s great timing for spring marathon training, close to London, cheap (so long as you can snag a place the second they go on sale!), well organised, with a hefty medal, and great pubs nearby to warm up in afterwards.

Cambridge Half Marathon, 5 March 2017, 1:45:59

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British Transplant Games: Liverpool 2016

11 August 2016, 13:14

Two weekends ago I travelled up to Liverpool to compete in my fourth British Transplant Games for King’s College Hospital, the hospital where I had my bone marrow transplant seven years ago. The Transplant Games are open to bone marrow and organ transplantees of any age, in a wide variety of sports and activities, and it truly is such an inspiring weekend of sport, community, and the life-saving power of transplants.

In years past I’ve done dedicated track and speedwork in preparation for the games, but this year has just been so… disrupted (between being ill for Jan-Mar, then going straight into marathon training for Transylvania then straight into distance cycling for Dunwich…) that I didn’t get a chance to do any speedwork. I did finally get on the track two days before the Games, but prior to that, the last time I set foot on a track was in Argentina!!

So I was really not feeling prepared this year, and just approaching it as a benchmark, and if I won some medals, fine. But my heart wasn’t really in it, and I kinda felt like I was just going through the motions, if I’m honest. I was most looking forward to seeing so many friends from around the country that I only see once a year!

Mini Marathon

My first event is always the Mini Marathon on Saturday night. It’s 5km for men, and 3km for women (don’t even get me started!!), either on roads or park paths somewhere in the host city, and this year it was a simple out & back route along the docks in Liverpool, which was nice. The Donor Run takes place at the same time, and is open to the public, but to avoid a dangerous scrum with serious competitors getting tangled up in fun runners in tutus (see Bolton in 2014), the transplant athletes set off from the front, with separate Donor Run waves behind.

Immediately from the starting gun there was a lady that was quite a way in front of me – I’d never seen her before, but I couldn’t close the gap at all, and mentally I’d already started thinking “oh well, I guess I’m not taking my [1st lady] trophy back home this year, but she looks younger so maybe I’ll still get gold for the 30-39 age category…” which made me not push quite as hard. Then I heard a spectator shout “Go Nadia!” and realised that she wasn’t far behind and I couldn’t quite give up yet, so I pulled up my socks (metaphorically) and kept pushing until I was over the line.

So no one was more surprised than me to hear the words “Congratulations, first lady!” – turns out the lady who went off like a shot wasn’t a transplant athlete but was a fun runner doing the 5k who just pushed her way up with the transplantees to be at the front! So thank you, speedy lady, as you definitely made me run harder than I would’ve otherwise!

The second surprising thing said to me as I crossed the line was “As first lady, you get to release the doves!” RELEASE THE DOVES?!? This was definitely a first for me! I’ve never been asked to release doves before!

BTG 16 - doves release
Releasing the doves

But yes, the first 3km male finisher and I opened the basket and… actually they were quite content to sit in there until we gave them a little prompting and they flew away!

BTG 16 - Me and Ruth
With my friend Ruth, who’d run ultras on the two previous weekends(!) and took bronze in the Mini Marathon (and Gold in the Race Walk!)

With the Mini Marathon out of the way, I felt a bit more relaxed and able to enjoy the King’s team meal afterwards on Saturday night, ready for the shorter track races, which are all on the Sunday – yes, five track races in one day!


The 1500m is my favourite of the track races – not just because I’m a distance runner and it’s the longest, but because you get to employ some tactics and mind games. I find with the shorter races a lot of it is just technique and brute strength, and I personally like not having to stay in lane, too!

Last year was the first year that I’ve had the chance to race against my “nemesis”, Orla, but she was coming off a foot injury last year and wasn’t at peak performance. With me not at my best this year, it was always going to make for an interesting race!

BTG 16 - 1500m pack (Roger Spicer)
Photo credit: Roger Spicer

With the 1500m, you’ve got a few options when it comes to the lane – naturally, you want to gravitate to Lane 1 since it’s the shortest distance, but this can mean that you get trapped in when there are several runners in a pack. But since it was just me and Orla up at the front, I chose to run on her shoulder in Lane 2, making sure she knew I was there and she couldn’t take it easy, even though it meant I was running further on the curves.

BTG 16 - 1500m chase (Orla Smyth)
Photo courtesy of Orla Smyth

I usually like to turn the screw and up the pace in the third lap, but this year I upped the pace, but she matched it and I just couldn’t get around her. So I stayed with her and played the only card I had left – the sprint finish. Now, for all my medals and trophies and marathon times, I am terrible at sprint finishes – I always get left for dead at Run dem Crew when we sprint it home, and I didn’t really want to leave it to a risky finish.

But since it was the only option I had left, as we rounded into the last 100m, I gave everything I could and hoped she wouldn’t notice until it was too late – and by some luck, that’s exactly what happened!

BTG 16 - 1500m finish (Roger Spicer)
The finishing sprint!! Photo credit: Roger Spicer

Had she noticed earlier how much I’d cranked up the speed, I know she could’ve won it, but it was the surprise I needed to cross over the line just ahead, taking gold and giving the crowd a great show, too.


I had a few hours break before my next race (thankfully!) but the 200m is my least favourite distance – it’s my weakest event (I don’t even do it at the World Transplant Games) and oftentimes the fast 100m sprinter ladies come up to run it, with them in blocks and me just trying to hold on. And it absolutely wrecks me for the rest of the day, moreso than the longer races. But I’d promised my team captain I’d do it if it was a guaranteed medal (and therefore points for King’s) so I asked the officials for the starting list and… there were just three of us in my 30-39 age category, so it looked like I was running it!

I didn’t know the other two ladies but I assumed this was because they were sprinters so I’d mentally resigned myself to bronze, but to my astonishment, I’d ended up crossing the line first for a gold!

BTG 16 - 200m (Dave Medcroft)
Sprinting the 200m! Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

Even stranger is that I raced it in the exact same time as last year, but it got me the gold instead of the bronze, which goes to show that it’s as much about your opponents as it is your performance sometimes.


I had about an hour break before my next race, and for some reason there were loads of women in my age category signed up for the 400m, enough that they had to schedule two separate time trials! As it turned out, there were a few no-shows so they managed to squeeze us all into one final, but I’d be up against Orla and I knew this was not only her strongest event, but also that she’d run half as many races as me in the past 24 hours.

BTG 16 - post race (Roger Spicer)
In the finish area. Photo credit: Roger Spicer

I pushed it hard, but Orla came round in an inside lane and took the lead and maintained it, thoroughly deserving her gold and leaving me with the silver. Which, looking at the strong finishes from across the other 8 lanes, is no mean feat in itself.


And, no less than a half hour after the 400m (literally not even enough time to get my medal), I got to do it all over again… twice around! There weren’t as many of us on the starting line as the 400m, but frankly I was knackered. So when Orla took off like a shot I thought “There is no way she can maintain that pace for the whole 800m” and resolved to keep steadily at it and close the distance over the two laps. But respect to her, she did maintain that pace, and I never did manage to close that gap.

BTG 16 - 800m (Dave Medcroft)
Orla deserved that gold! Photo credit: Dave Medcroft

But I kept true to myself, too, and maintained my pace, earning myself a second silver for my collection! It wasn’t until afterwards that I compared my times to previous years, and it was interesting to note how consistent my times were compared to previous British Games (where I’d been equally knackered at the end of the day – my Argentina times were way faster thanks to the extra training and rest days!). My 800m time was actually 2 seconds faster than last year’s time, and my 400m was 1 second faster, so again, it’s really down to your competitors as much as it is your own times!

4×100m team relay

And again, I had less than a half hour’s rest before the final event of the day, which is always the team 4×100 relays. Now, I always put my name down in advance to help out the team, but I always try to wriggle out of actually doing it because a) I’m freaking exhausted at this point of the day, b) I am not a sprinter and hate competing the 100m distance, and c) oh god the baton and the little lines and I can only hand off within certain lines, aaahhh!

But we’d had some injuries this year and so a few regulars couldn’t do it, and I agreed to run it if I could be in the first position and therefore only have to do one baton handoff, ha! There were so many teams competing this year that they had to run three separate heats (as time trials) to decide the winners, and Team King’s did amazingly well – coming second place in the first heat so we then had a nail-biting wait watching the other two heats hoping we’d be fast enough to cling on to a silver or bronze.

As it turned out, we were awarded silver on the podium, but after some protests that the winning team was comprised of athletes from mixed hospitals and therefore ineligible for medals, we were eventually awarded gold!! In all my years for competing for King’s, we’ve never won gold at the relay so this was a huge deal for us, and completely unexpected!

BTG 16 - all the medals
With all the medals!

So all in all, I ended up with four golds, two silvers, and the right to retain my trophy for another year. Not bad for feeling woefully unprepared, especially if you consider that, in June and July, I’ve run an (ultra) marathon through Transylvania, cycled 120 miles overnight, and won medals in six separate track events! Which is quite a range.

British Transplant Games, 30-31 July
3km “mini marathon”, 12:18 – gold & trophy
1500m, 5:48 – gold
800m, 2:56 – silver
400m, 1:13 – silver
200m, 0:32 – gold
4×100m team relay – gold

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Dunwich Dynamo - ride report

19 July 2016, 14:35

The Dunwich Dynamo is not a race. Nor is it a sportive. Nor is it organised (by anyone!). The Dunwich Dynamo is a rite of passage – an annual 120 mile bike ride from London Fields in east London to Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast. It’s been going for over 20 years and the route is just “known”, and the date is the Saturday closest to the full moon in July. Riders set off sometime between 7 and 9pm, and generally don’t make it to the beach at Dunwich until sunrise, or some hours thereafter.

James is the cyclist in our relationship (I prefer to think of myself as “a runner who’s sometimes on a bike”) and I urged him to ride it last year as I think it’s good to challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone every now and then. He absolutely loved the experience and camaraderie on the road through the night, and assured me that there’s plenty of slower riders, riders on Bromptons, wacky races-style antics, and plenty of burger vans and pubs open all night along the way, and that he really thought I could do it. So I agreed, as long it the forecast wasn’t really wet (as it turned out, it was super warm and just about perfect!).

Dunwich Dynamo
selfie at the start

I’ve been cycle commuting regularly since January when we moved moorings, but my route is only 11km each way, and my longest ride ever is still just some 30 mile sportives we did last year. But I figured I’d just take it at my own pace, and well, it’d be good to challenge myself a bit. I should also probably point out that I do all my cycling on a 25 year old, heavy ass (14kg) mountain bike with road tires, and that I haven’t worn my clippy shoes in nearly a year either. But I’ve got marathon running legs and good cardio, so I figured the flat-ish route shouldn’t be too big of an issue. What worried me much more was the overnight aspect, as I start nodding off every night at 11pm on the dot – I pretty much wind down like a clockwork toy. And I was right to worry, as fighting sleep deprivation was by far the hardest part about the Dynamo for me.

We set off at London Fields in a big group of riders around 8pm, and the streets through London were quite fun – really congested with cyclists but good banter and there were just SO many of us that drivers just gave us the right of way, which was great. Things spread out a bit once we got to Waltham Forest, and by the time we got to the first pub stop I was feeling hungry, but otherwise fine. I resisted the siren call of a chandy and had some bar snacks and some flapjacks instead.

Dunwich Dynamo
at the first pub, around 10pm, with tea!

It’s probably a good point now to list out a few things I liked about the ride, and a few things I didn’t.

Things I liked

  • The pit stops were great – full of happy people, food, chatter, and friendly support. These each felt like a mini festival!
  • The inventive light displays – loads of riders decorated their bikes and helmets with fairy lights, and a good amount had the wheel LED displays, too, which made it feel really festive.
  • The Sudbury Fire Station halfway point – a true beacon in the darkness and my own personal Mile21 moment!
  • Especially in the second half, the country lanes were utterly gorgeous. Early in the morning, there was hardly any traffic, so you could just concentrate on the views and fresh air
  • The people who set up chairs in their front gardens just to wave and cheer us on. I made sure to give them a toot and a wave in return!
  • Spending time with my husband in a shared pursuit. He doesn’t run, so this was a great way for us to do an athletic activity together.
  • Dunwich beach and a dip in the sea – best ice bath EVER.

Dunwich Dynamo
Dawn at Barking

Things I didn’t like

  • The overnight aspect. Losing a night’s sleep was far, far harder than the ride itself. It would’ve been 100% more enjoyable for me if it was an 8am-8pm ride.
  • Being passed by thousands of riders, over and over again, for hours on end. I’m not a particularly slow cyclist, but I’d be going at a fair clip and then be passed by a group of riders like I was standing still. It’s really dispiriting to be passed like that over and over again, and it means you can’t chat to anyone, either. I wished there was a dedicated social/casual wave to allow more camraderie outside the pit stops.
  • Descents with blind corners in the dark. I cannot stress how much these stress me out. I don’t mind descents when I can see what’s coming up, but if I can’t see the road surface, or if there are any riders or cars ahead of me, I’m going to lay on that brake like a freaking granny so I don’t end up with full body road rash.
  • The asshole who shouted at me while on a dark descent just before dawn, while passing really closely, causing me to fucking lose my last remaining nerve and burst into tears, requiring 15 minutes of hugs and chocolate by the roadside before continuing. Fuck you, mister man in backpack. I hope you feel big and proud.

Despite having not cycled anything longer than an hour in the past year and not having trained at all, my legs and lungs were actually fine throughout. My right hip started bothering me and my bum started chafing a bit after about 80 miles, and I was fighting low-level nausea for the second half, but I think I held up okay, all considering.

Dunwich Dynamo
Pancake & Gu pick-me-up…

Despite all the unenjoyable bits, I’m still really glad I did this. I’m proud that I was able to cycle for 9.5hrs (12.5 hrs elapsed time) with relatively few consequences. I’m proud that I didn’t fall over in my clippy shoes, not even once. I’m proud that I didn’t walk up any of the hills, even at the end when lots of others were doing so. And I’m proud that I did it in entirely self-sewn gear, too (more on this over at

Dunwich Dynamo
Obligatory finish photo!

I feel the need to give a special shout out to two people who really and truly got me through this when I might not have otherwise. First, my Run dem Crew friend Vicky, who not only stayed up all night at Sudbury Fire Station to cheer me and a handful of other RDC friends on, but she also made trays and trays of sandwiches, cakes, orange slices, crisps, and even gluten free options and really helped boost morale when I felt about 90% done at the halfway point. And second, my husband James, without whom I really don’t know whether I’d have finished. He stayed with me the entire ride, picked me up when I needed it, hugged me when I needed it, got food and drinks while I stayed with the bikes, and brought some magic chocolate and pancakes from his bag at exactly the right point (pancakes topped with salted caramel Gu gels is a wonderful thing, btw). Basically, he sacrificed his ride so that I could get through it.

Dunwich Dynamo
Beach finish. Thank god!

I really do think it’s something that everyone who’s able should experience at least once, and I’m glad I did it. But right now I don’t think I feel the need to do it again!

Dunwich Dynamo, 16-17 July. 9:33:29

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A guide to the Transylvanian Bear Race

13 June 2016, 14:32

This post is intended to help guide anyone wishing to run the Transylvanian Bear Race next year, as there’s not much information out there beyond the official site. You can read my race report here, but this post is more laying out the logistics and my opinions on how you can make the most of your time in Transylvania over the race weekend. These are all my opinions and I might have an error here or there, but basically I’m answering all the questions I had before running!

Viscri main street
The main street in Viscri (no really)

Viscri view
View from the Viscri fortified church

Pre-Race & Viscri

  • Flights & transfers – The race organisers did a good job of laying out all the flight options from London to the race start. I opted to go for the more expensive flight into Targu Mures (aka “Tirgu Mures” or “Transilvania”) airport which arrived very late on Thursday night, and I’m glad I did. Transfer times to/from Targu Mures were only 90/60min instead of the 4+hr transfer from Bucharest, and it meant I had the whole day on Friday to relax around Viscri village. Transfers were in vans, and the ride was comfortable right up until the potholed, dirt track leading into Viscri. Note that you should bring along a torch and a map of where your accommodation is located as the drivers just know where you drop you off and that’s it.
  • Money – Definitely bring some cash in local currency (Romanian Lei) before you get to Viscri, as no one takes cards. There is a cash point in the Arrivals hall at Targu Mures airport (and presumably at Cluj and Bucharest, too, as Targu is tiny!). There aren’t many places to spend money in Viscri, but there is a small shop selling snacks and drinks, a bakery, the fortified church (8 lei entry fee), the ladies selling hand knitted socks (about 30 lei a pair), and also lunch at Viscri 125 (also around 30 lei) on Friday if you arrive early like I did. There are plenty of cash points in Sighisoara so you really only need enough to get you through the day in Viscri.
  • Viscri accomodation – I stayed in Viscri 129 guesthouse, which was on the main street and only a few doors down from Visccri 125, which serves as Race HQ and appears to be the only hotel, restaurant, and wifi in the village. Others who stayed at 125 were very happy with it, and I was pleased with 129, too. Experience Transylvania were super helpful in arranging my arrival at 3am and getting some groceries in the fridge for my arrival, so they certainly get two thumbs up from me! Accommodation in the open hayloft is included in your race entry, but you need to provide your own sleeping bag and mat. I didn’t see the loft myself (as it was up the hill by the fortified church) but I’m told there were plentiful toilets but no showers, and you’d be advised to bring ear plugs and eye masks as the cuckoos and cows are quite loud in the morning!
  • Viscri village sights/amenities – Viscri is a tiny village – there are seriously only three roads, and you can walk around the entire village in about 10min. The only reason people really ever come here is to see the fortified church, which is well worth a visit for the views as well as the local history museum, which I found genuinely fascinating. You can also see the terrain of where you’ll be running the next day! Some others visited the village bakery, where you can watch them make traditional loves, and there are a few ladies selling hand knitted socks and caps on the street leading up to the church. Every morning and evening the cows go through town on their way out to pasture (and let themselves into the right house each night!!) which is about as much excitement as you’re likely to get. As a result, there are cow patties everywhere so you might want to leave your heels at home, ha! I was also surprised to find that the villagers tended to speak German instead of Romanian.
  • Registration/briefing/pasta party – Friday night there’s a mandatory race briefing followed by a pasta party at Viscri 125. The latter consisted of pasta in a meat sauce or veggie sauce accompanied by bread, with a cash bar on hand if you fancied beer, wine, or the local plum palinka/moonshine. Directly after the race briefing was registration, where you signed a waiver and picked up your number for the next day – all very low key!
  • Fundraising – The race is in aid of the European Nature Trust and you’re expected to raise £200 to help fund their efforts to educate the local children in conservation as well as buying up forested land to preserve. The TENT guys were on hand to help tell us what they do, and the education bus was open to poke around, too. They’re a really small and friendly charity doing a lot of good work on the ground in Romania, and IMHO the fundraising amount is quite reasonable!

Viscri knitting lady
One of the ladies selling knitwear in Viscri

The Race itself

  • Route / elevation – The ultra course is ~88km and the marathon course is 47km, and you can see my Strava run details here, which include the elevation. Marathon runners had the option to be taken further up the course in a horse and cart so that it’d be closer to true marathon distance rather than starting at the church. This was still 45km, but cut out the incredibly boggy first few km, but on the downside you also miss out on starting at the church, so it’s something you’ll need to decide for yourself. Note that only the ultra course goes through the surrounding villages – on the marathon course, the only civilisation you’ll see are at the start and finish.
  • Running surface – The vast majority of the marathon course is along a mountain biking trail, marked with crushed white chalk stone (the ultra course uses this too, with added diversions to the villages). Since it’s designed for mountain bikes, the turns are banked, there are twisty chicanes up and down steep gradients (which you’re welcome to run straight through!), and the occasional jumps nearing Sighisoara. It rained heavily the night before our race so the path was pretty much continuous mud and puddles, but much easier to run through that the logging trail in the first 2km.
  • Course marking – As nearly all of the marathon course follows the mountain biking trail, you really only need to follow the crushed white stone, but there are places where it’s not easy to see. The race organisers tied hazard tape to trees every 50m (red for ultra, yellow for marathon) and even spraypainted arrows on the road in a few places. I personally found it pretty easy to follow even in my marathon-brain state but apparently I was in the minority who didn’t get lost at all.
  • Feed stations – There are checkpoints at kilometers 13, 24, 31, and 37 on the marathon course (a few extras for the ultra, but I didn’t write those down!). These were really just a volunteer with some bags of snacks (crisps, haribo, cookies, bananas, etc) plus bottles of coke and water by the side of the trail (no tables or chairs). I should point out that there are no toilets along the course, but you’ll be running in utter solitude for long stretches of time so squatting in the forest to do your business is really no biggie (but pack so loo roll in a ziploc just in case, as the race has a strict NO LITTERING policy so you’ll need to bring your tissue back with you).
  • Required kit list – The race website listed a bunch of things that runners needed to present at registration and every checkpoint, so I brought all these with me only to find out that they were only vaguely recommended. The only items we were actually required to bring along were a water bottle and a waterproof jacket (and even then there was no checking at the feed stations, start or finish). The torch was mostly for finding your way around Viscri at night, and the map case and compass were replaced by an offline map app, and the whistle was presumably to ward off bears and sheepdogs, but we weren’t really told what do to in case of bear sighting anyway, as they’re really rare with the amount of noise and smells runners produce!
  • Recommended kit (IMHO) – These are all highly subjective, but I’d recommend trail shoes, a good running backpack, a waterproof jacket, water bottles or camelbak, whatever nutrition suits you, plus a backup phone battery and the aforementioned loo roll in a baggie. But back to the shoes – about half wore road shoes (including the first lady!) and were fine, but I was very glad to have my trail shoes, because we ran through really thick mud and standing water, and my trail shoes drain and dry off much more quickly than road shoes. But ultimately wear whatever you’re comfortable running 5+ hours in! Also weather depending, you may want suncream or sunglasses for the 4km or so in the meadows where there’s no shade. I used bug spray but I think the mud washed it off anyway – the bugs were only an issue if I stopped moving entirely.
  • Maps – Instead of paper maps, we were all told to download the View Ranger app onto our phones and load up either the marathon or ultra course map in case we got lost. To be honest, I only opened the app once during the race, and that was just to see exactly how close to Sighisoara I was when I started to hear road noises.
  • Photographer – There’s a very friendly race photographer, Paul, who followed our progress in a 4×4 as well as by mountain bike. But there’s only one of him and we all got quite spread out, so I only saw him once at the beginning of the race, though the organisers took photos of everyone at the finish line, too. If photos are important to you, get practising with those selfies!
  • Wildlife – You are very unlikely to encounter any wolves or bears! Frankly, the professional sheepdogs are scary enough, but the shepherds were briefed ahead of time that we’d be coming through, and kept a close eye on them. I did see lots of birds, snails, a couple frogs, and a family of piggies, though, and heard lots of cuckoos in the forest (though strangely, no squirrels!).

Sighisoara main square
The main square “post race” beer area in Sighisoara

Sighisoara beer
The local beer, Ursus, is rather good!

Post-Race & Sighisoara

  • Finish line & goodie bag – The race finish goes through the centre of the old town, through the main square (where you’ll get cheers and beers from those who’ve already finished!), up the infamous wooden stairs, and then the road winds upwards again at the top of the stairs, finishing at the very top of the hill. This year we received a beautiful, hand crafted ceramic finishers medal, embroidered teeshirt, and a canvas tote bag. There was water at the finish, but most of us just went back down the hill and had a beer in the piazza cafes instead. We were also given access to a piazaa hotel to have a shower and change, though if accommodation changes in future (see below), you might just check into your hotel afterwards instead.
  • Post race party – The post-race party was in the basement event space of one of the piazza hotels, and really was just a sit down, two course meal. Drinks were extra, and there wasn’t any music or entertainment. It was also very casual, so don’t bother packing nice clothes or dancing shoes or anything! It was really just a great opportunity to chat to the other runners and find out how their races went! There was nothing formally organised for Sunday morning so say your goodbyes at the party unless you make specific plans to meet up the next day.
  • Sighisoara accomodation – I won’t go into the details here as I’ve already contacted the organisers, but our included accommodation was extremely disappointing. I’m told that they’ve learned from this and that it may not be included in future anyway – just know that there are loads of reasonably priced hotels in Sighisoara, so if a good bed and hot shower matter to you, just book your own room for the night.
  • Sighisoara sights/amenities – Sighisoara is a decent sized town with a roaring tourist trade so all the amenities are there – cash points, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, the works. The main attractions are the citadel/church at the top of the hill, which has some interesting frescos and crypt, and the clock tower, which includes an extensive museum and views from the top. Both had entrance fees, but I can’t recall what they were. There’s also “the room where Dracula was born!” but Tripadvisor said this was tacky so I didn’t bother…
  • Flights & transfers – The pickup point for transfers back to the airports was from a restaurant just off the main square – very easy to find. Make absolutely sure you don’t miss the transfer time, though, as it was everyone’s responsibility to be there. If you’re flying back out of Targu Mures airport, use up your local currency before going through security, as the two shops on the other side of security/passport control only take Euros. But really, buy any snacks or souvenirs before you leave Sighisoara because the airport selection was really dire.

View of Sighisoara
View from the clock tower in Sighisoara

Things I wish I’d done: had my husband fly in to Targu Mures after the race and spent another week driving around the Transylvanian countryside! Several others thought to do this and I was so jealous!

I should also point out that there’s a mountain biking trip through the same area in Transylvania, run by the European Nature Trust (who are the charity partner for the Bear Race and are really lovely people!). One of the five days is the exact route of the Bear Race marathon, and I can attest that the trail is perfectly suited for cycling!

If you’ve got any other questions about something I’ve not covered here, feel free to leave me a comment below, but as time goes on my memory might get a bit hazy!

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Transylvanian Bear Race - race report

7 June 2016, 13:39

I have never felt more grateful to be on a start line than I did standing in front of the fortified church in Viscri, Transylvania, in Romania on Saturday. I’d heard about the Transylvanian Bear Race over a year ago when my friend Rhalou ran the first ever one and raved about it, sharing amazing photos and saying it was the best race she’d ever done (and she’s run a lot of races). So I signed up pretty much immediately when it opened up for 2016, and couldn’t stop talking about it for the past 9 months or so. People loved the name and the crazy premise of the race (to run through Europe’s last unspoiled virgin forests, with wild bears and wolves, through medieval villages, and finish going up the steps to Dracula’s castle), and I was excited to finally run my first trail marathon after running five road marathons. For me it’d be both an adventure and a new physical test.

But I was quite seriously ill in January, and didn’t really recover enough to do any running whatsoever until April, meaning I had to defer London marathon and DNS Cardiff Half. I managed to party pace Hackney Half in the searing heat, but cramming in 6 weeks of training and only one really long run in for this race was not ideal. But my 3.5hr run along the North Downs Way gave me confidence that I could at least complete the race, and my legs felt marathon-ready, even though overall I knew I still wasn’t back up to my usual fitness level.

Bear Race start
Before the start, complete with Run dem Crew tee, custom-sewn bear shorts, and trusty backpack

The Transylvanian Bear Race is actually two races – you can choose to run either the “marathon”, or the ultra. I chose the marathon because I’d been wanting to run a trail marathon for ages, and I credit my staying at a race distance for a number of years before progressing in distance for my only ever having one injury in 14 years of running (from a track session, no less!). So I felt I wanted to stay at the marathon distance a while longer before possibly moving into an ultra at some point – and this ultra is 88km, over twice the marathon distance! I only discovered a month or so before the race that the “marathon” distance was actually 49km the previous year, and as it turned out, 47km this year after cutting out a section through a village. With 576m (1890ft) of climb and challenging terrain, this is not your standard marathon – I’d also learned that last year’s winner finished two hours over his road marathon PB, and that if you get in under 6 hours, you’ve done really well!

Bear Race selfie at Viscri
Start line selfie with the fortified church at Viscri

I stood on the start line feeling ready for adventure, and almost immediately after we took off, we encountered two miles of the boggiest mud I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to both English cross country meets as well as Glastonbury!). This made it difficult to even walk, let alone run, and I know I used up far too much energy early on just getting through it (as did everyone else). But I was fortunate enough to not lose a shoe (as others did), and when we finally hit the proper trail, it felt amazing to finally stretch out my legs and find a comfortable running rhythm. The vast majority of the race just follows a very well maintained mountain biking trail through the forests – while it was designed for cyclists with nice banked corners and shallow gradients (think zigzags up the hills which runners could easily shortcut), the entire route was lined in a crushed chalk stone which made it easy to follow but also really nice to run on.

Bear Race view at clearing Bear Race selfie with vista

But there were a few twists and turns along the way, and a few places where it wasn’t immediately obvious which path to take (as there were some logging roads in places, too), and the race directors marked the route with coloured tape at 50m intervals – red and white for the ultra, and black and yellow for the marathon. Talking to other runners afterwards, I seem to be in the minority that didn’t get lost at all, and even in my braindead state at the end, I found it easy to just follow the white chalk path (we were also supplied with an offline trail map app but I didn’t need to use it at all).

But those are purely logistics – the experience of the race was both the hardest run I’ve ever done and also the most rewarding. 90% of the route is in the forests, which were just stunningly beautiful. For large stretches of the race I ran alone in the forest, and I could turn 360 degrees around and not only see no other humans, but see no other evidence of humans other than the path. The sound of the cuckoos in the trees while I ran, with dappled sunshine streaming through the forest canopy is a memory I’ll take with me forever. And it was like that, over and over, for hours.

Bear Race forest selfie

We got really lucky with the weather – the forecast in the week leading up to the race called for thunderstorms on the day, and even at the pre-race briefing we were told that waterproofs were mandatory. It rained heavily in the days leading up to the race, leaving the path as a near-continuous string of puddles and mud despite the chalk, but the weather during the run was gorgeous – sunny but shaded in the forest and about 20 degrees Celsuis (70F) with a light breeze.

Bear Race - muddy trail
Fairly representative photo of the muddy trail

The meadows, however, were another story. Apparently only 4km of the course is not in the forest, but as soon you stepped out of the tree line you were hit hard with two things: 1) omg the vistas across the mountains were incredible, stretching for miles and miles fading into faded purple mountains, with no houses or human evidence in sight. And 2) the beating sun caused the temperature to be at least 10 degrees © hotter than in the forest, which, combined with the high humidity, made running a real struggle. Once the initial boggy miles were out of the way, I settled into a pretty good rhythm in the forests, running about 6min/km (9min/mi), chatting with various other runners for 10-30min at a time, and just stopping at the checkpoints to fill up my Camelbak and be off on my way.

Bear Race - with sign
Posing with the directional sign at the 3rd checkpoint at 31km

But right after the third checkpoint at 31km (19mi), we hit a meadow and I just melted. I’d already been running for about 4 hours at that point, and every time I attempted to jog a little, but my body just said NO. So to avoid heat exhaustion, I ended up walking the entire 2-3km of that meadow, despite attempting to run several times. This meadow alone easily added 30-40min onto my time, but as soon as I hit the forest again, the cool air hit me and I could pick up running again. Once we were on the mountain biking path, we were pretty much alone until the last descent into town, apart from 2 or 3 weathered local shepherds keeping an eye on their flocks (who’d be warned in advance that we’d be coming through and to kindly keep their enormous sheepdogs out of our way!). Whenever I’ve been on trails or public footpaths in the US or UK, I’d come across people out hiking or walking their dogs, or even out running at least once every half hour or so. But in Transylvania, there wasn’t a soul using the path that wasn’t part of the race, which I just found odd, but also a bit sad. Sure, we were running through a very remote area with only a handful of villages for miles around, but it still felt like somewhere so beautiful should be appreciated a bit more, and not just by 65 sweaty Brits on one day a year.

Bear Race - meadow tree
The only shade in that entire blazing meadow

But back to my race – after the molten meadow, I picked back up running again in the forest, but without the same vigour as before. I’m blaming it on the heat, but it could also just be the fact that I’d been running for longer than I’d ever been on my feet before. By the time 5 hours rolled along, I was still a few kilometers shy of the 42km marathon mark, and I “celebrated” by recording a little stream of consciousness video diary on my Go Pro, which was thoroughly amusing but rather rambling so I edited it down for time!

Bear Race - stairs at Sighisoara
The stairs at Sighisoara (actually only half of them!

Bear Race - acid trip selfie
My “acid trip” selfie taken on the stairs – I swear I wasn’t pulling a face, this was just how I felt!

Just before the final zigzag descent into Sighisoara, I started to hear some road noises and another runner came up behind me in one of my walking breaks, so my new friend and I made the descent into town together, feeling equally startled by the sudden appearance of people, taxis, and chickens, and then running on pavement, cobbles, and having to cross the road! Once we got into the main square we were greeted by an almighty cheer from the finished runners enjoying their beers in a piazza cafe, which really helped pick up the legs to get to the almighty covered wooden staircase leading up to the citadel. My new friend started running up the stairs (!!), to which I promptly said “F— that, I’m walking up!”, then once at the top, it was a short curve round to the very top of the hill, where the finish line was marked with a few stones, cheers of congratulations, and a hug from my friend Ruth (who said I “looked fresh”, hahahah).

Bear Race - finish line

My official time was 6 hours 22 minutes and 57 seconds, which was about 2.5hrs longer than I’d ever run before (my 3:52 finish at Copenhagen marathon in 2013). I’d also finished as second lady, apparently, too, so in case you’re thinking that this was a really slow time for 47km, just let that sink in (and in fact, my time this year was faster than the first lady’s time last year)! That time is much more of an indication of how difficult the terrain and conditions were than any particular comment on my performance on the day – I know one runner who took nearly 12 hours to finish!

Bear Race - medal

I’m leaving out a lot of race particulars here on purpose as I’m writing another post as a guide for anyone who’d like to run it next year (and you should!!), but the medal we were given at the finish is probably the nicest one I’ve ever received in all my races. It’s a glazed ceramic medal, handmade by local artisans, and is such a wonderful and fitting reminder of the race – it’s beautiful to behold, but also a little rough around the edges but absolutely bursting with charm.

Transylvanian Bear Race, 4 June 2016, 6:22:57

This race was in aid of the European Nature Trust, a small charity whose aims are conservation of the Transylvanian forests through buying up land as well as educating Romanian schoolchildren in a travelling conservation bus. You can donate to my fundraising here if you’d like..

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