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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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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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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A long run on the North Downs Way

25 May 2016, 15:44

Marathon training has been short and sharp this year thanks to my several-month-long illness this winter, but now I’m finally feeling back on track and back to full strength, and the training plan from Coach Babs is reaching its crescendo. Last week my plan called for a 3hr run that would mimic conditions for my upcoming Transylvanian Bear Race. I could just run around the Thames again, or pop down to Richmond Park and run around that for a while, but my recent travels to Istanbul gave me an itch to explore a bit closer to home.

My first thought was to go to the South Downs Way, but then I remembered the North Downs Way is both closer and mostly in woodland, and would be even better. The North Downs Way is one of the long distance trails that England excels at: 153 miles of well-marked trails running roughly East to West south of London in Surrey and Kent.

Start of the NDW run
Selfie when I started my run…

This ticked all my boxes: trail, hilly, and unfamiliar! It’s marked well enough with signs, but not so well that I didn’t have to think, and it gave me a great “dress rehearsal” to test out my trail shoes, backpack (with CamelBak bladder inside), and homemade flax gels. But most important of all was the mental training – namely, practising walking when the terrain demands it rather than just forging my way ahead up steep hills, rocky descents, and gullied narrow paths that I really shouldn’t be wasting my energy on.

I had a rough look at distances on a map before I started and reckoned that Guildford would be a good starting point. But it’s also a little hike between the train station and the NDW itself, and not signposted from the station or town centre at all! Thankfully, I anticipated this and printed out the instructions for the beginning of a Guildford walk in book 2 of the Time Out Book of Country Walks. I honestly think I would’ve struggled to find the trail on my own if I didn’t have these (or a good map!) to follow. Since I was checking the directions every few seconds, I didn’t start running (and my GPS tracker) til I reached the North Downs Way proper.

Trail heaven

I’d forgotten from my weekend trail runs in Hampstead Heath in years past how much better I respond to running on soft surfaces! It’s been a while, but it was obvious to me during the brief paved section near Denbies how much kinder the trails and grass were to my feet and joints than the hard pavements. Thankfully 95% of the NDW (or at least the portion I covered) is trail, varying in width from bridleways and logging trails down to a few overgrown portions requiring nimble feet to avoid nettle stings from both sides.

One main advantage of the North Downs Way over the South Downs Way IMHO is that the North is almost entirely in woodland. I love running in the woods, but it’s also preferable on sunny or windy days, as you’ve got a lot more shelter from the elements.

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on

Video of the solitude…

Buuuuuuuut, the downside is that the entire NDW route is hilly. Like, really hilly! Box Hill has the reputation for being one of the biggest, steepest hills in the South East, and the road up it is absolutely covered in cyclists at the weekend. The pedestrian route is less crowded, but also has steps cut in to the trail that are so steep you could practically climb up with your hands. I’d run up these steps before at the start of the Three Molehills race a few years ago, but my legs were fresh then instead of having run for over two hours already so they were a bit of a surprise!

Box Hill steps

If you’re thinking of hiking or running the NDW on your own, I’d highly recommend bringing along a good map, either a printed Ordinance Survey (OS) map or a digital one like the RouteBuddy offline trailhead map I used – well worth the fiver I paid! On the left is the general map my running app gives me (about the same info as Apple or Google Maps) – it’s fine for cities, but I was running blind in the woods – compare that to the map in Route Buddy on the right! (The NDW path is marked by a series of red dots.)

Map comparison

Even though there are signposts everywhere for the NDW, there were still several points where I wasn’t entirely sure which way to go, and also it was useful for checking my progress – like a big “You Are Here!” on an OS map. And also it worked in those places where I had no mobile signal, too.

Sometimes with these long runs, you can build up the scale of it in your head so much that you get overly focused on the amount of running ahead of you and forget to enjoy the experience. But with this run, I thoroughly enjoyed the woodland solitude. I thought I’d want some music or podcasts after a few hours, but as it turns out, saying hello to dog walkers, watching where I was going, and listening to the birds and my internal monologue kept me occupied enough for the entire run without bothering to get my headphones out.

North Downs Way selfie after 3hrs
Selfie taken after over 3hrs of running!

When I originally looked at the map to plan this run, I thought I’d run from Guildford to Redhill, but with all the little twists and turns, by the time I got to Reigate I was already over the 30km and 3 hour mark so I grabbed two bottles of water at the concession stand (the only one along the way!! Take note and bring more water than I did!) and walked the 2km down the hill(!!) to Reigate station, where I grabbed a direct train back to London.

Elevation of NDW run
Elevation profile of the run, with Box Hill approximately in the middle

I haven’t harped on about it much here, but I’m actually doing a bit of fundraising in conjunction with the Transylvanian Bear Race. The official charity of the race is The European Nature Trust (TENT), a small charity who work with local schools to educate children in Romania about the importance of preserving the forests I’ll be running 49km through in (eep!) 10 days.

I even recorded a little video on the trail to tell you about it!

A video posted by Melissa Fehr (@fehrtrade) on

If you’d like to donate a bit of spare cash to TENT, I (and the bears and wolves*) would really appreciate it!

* not the vampires though, those guys are jerks.

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Holiday running and clawing my way back

6 May 2016, 15:36

Well, it’s been quite a year so far. As I said last time, I was ill from January through to the beginning of April, when I finally just started to feel a little bit better. This coincided nicely with a short trip we’d booked back to the States to see friends and attend a family wedding, so it meant I could make those first few tough runs back a bit more interesting since they were in novel places.

Running in PA

The weather was very wet when we were in Baltimore, so my first run ended up being up in Pennsylvania, where one of my best friends from Penn State, Brian, took me on a nice 10km tour of the country roads around Lewisburg, PA.

selfie with Brian

It was so nice to finally run with him – neither of us ran when we were at university, only picking it up later, and I often read about his crazy mountain running exploits on social media. Considering my illness and his looking after a toddler full time, we kept the pace easy and I really enjoyed it!

feet at Rock Creek

My next two runs ended up being in DC, where I saw on the map that Rock Creek Park wasn’t too far away from where we were staying. The first attempt to run there was cut short by wasting literally an hour trying to get into the damned thing on foot (only in America would they design a park to be driven through!!), but the second time I broke away onto some truly lovely mountain, woodland trails. I also found a few secluded roads with only myself, the black squirrels, and the odd cyclist or two.

Strenuous of course! Rock Creek Park
I even had a bit of fun on some “technical” bits of trail – by “strenuous”, they just meant “rocky”, okay!

My final run of the holiday was on a hotel treadmill, with piped jazz being blasted through the speakers (WHY???), purely so I’d be tired enough to sleep on my overnight flight. So it wasn’t all scenic surroundings, honest!

run selfie

Since I’ve returned home, I’ve been trying to get back into a steady training rhythm, seeing my coach on alternate Tuesday mornings, running with Run dem Crew on Tuesday nights, cycle commuting (11km each way) on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursdays, doing some short and sharp runs on Thursday and Sunday mornings, and a long run with some trail elements on Friday mornings. But I’m getting tired a lot more quickly (a 2hr run wipes me out like a 3hr run would) and my tempo runs are way off (my “fast” pace is at last year’s “marathon pace”!), which I know is a sign I’ve lost some fitness while I was battling all those viruses.

I’m running Hackney Half on Sunday again this year, but with the way my running has been, there’s no way I was going to be doing it at anything other than “party pace” — even before the forecasted heat wave! So I really will be just pootling round it in my shades and SPF70, soaking up the steel drums and treating it as a long run. I’ve only got four weeks to go to the Transylvanian Bear Race (omg!) so my focus is really on getting my mileage up and practicing long runs in my trail shoes, backpack, and homemade flax gels. But more on that (and the other posts I promised!) soon.

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Three Molehills - Race Report

27 November 2014, 17:31

I become a bigger and bigger fan of Events to Live with every race I run. I first encountered them when I ran my first Bacchus race in 2012, and then this spring I also ran their 20 mile Spitfire race and together they really sealed my undying devotion. They’re a small events company, local to Surrey, and they just put on really great races in their local area, with interesting distances, terrain, and sights. They’re always reasonably priced, well organised, and with the friendliest marshals I’ve ever encountered. The end result is that when I sign up to one of their races, I know it’s going to be a good time.

The Three Molehills race is predominantly a relay event, with each leg taking in one “Molehill” – it’s a great play on words because they’re hills in the Mole Valley, but also the hills are massive, so calling them “molehills” is like a tiny pat on the head to the beasts that are Box Hill, Norbury Park, and Ranmore! You can also opt to run the entire race as an individual, however, taking in all three hills over nearly 16 miles, and so of course, that’s what I chose to do, and happily, my friends Chris and Cat were equally crazy!

Three Molehills - elevation
The elevation for the course, recorded by my GPs app

It’s impossible to talk about this race without also talking about the weather – it was an utter downpour for the entire day. Raining sideways, windy on the tops of the hills, flooded streams, and large amounts of standing water pretty much everywhere. The only way to get through it was to just accept that you’d get soaked to the bone, and bring a towel and change of dry clothes for afterwards (which is what we did).

Three Molehills - Box Hill steps
Box Hill stairs. Photo credit: Amy Heinen

The first leg was the steepest, taking in the infamous Box Hill (infamous because it is the steepest hill in the entire south of England, used by cyclists every weekend trying to replicate the Tour de France mountain stage feelings). Usually the course has a choice of stepping stones over a creek, or a longer route going over a bridge, but the creek was so flooded the bridge was the only option (and even that became flooded the next day!). Across the bridge it was the a relentless line of muddy steps up the side of the hill, which Chris and I ran up most of, trying to pass our way around all the walkers, before having to stop and wait for Cat and the top anyway. We took a second to admire the views before returning back down the steep slope, past the motorway (where we got full-body sprayed by so many cars I lost count), and back to base before turning around to start the second leg.

Three Molehills - group shot
Photo credit:

The second leg was the longest, but also one which had a more undulating terrain around a wide loop, rather than a distinct “up the hill then down the hill” like the other two legs. This one went through Norbury Park and included a lot of woodland stretches, and the trees looked absolutely gorgeous in the rain – the dark, damp trunks a pleasing contrast to the autumn foliage. I think this is my favourite of the three legs. If I’d run it as a relay in future, I’d personally go for this one, as I’m well suited to the up ad downs spread over a longer distance.

Cat and Chris both then stopped in for a loo break when we were back to base before starting the third leg. There weren’t any portaloos and there were already people finishing the race (!!) so it took them a good 10min to fight their way through people changing so we could get started again. The third loop was completely familiar to me since it was the same course as the end of the Bacchus half – an out & back up Ranmore along paved paths, past the church and a little ways along some flat meadow before turning around again the way you came.

This was a great finish to the race because a) you already knew exactly how much you had left, b) you could admire the views as you ran down the hills through the woods, and c) having the finish be entirely downhill means you can really fly and sprint right into the finish line!

Three Molehills - finishing straight official
Photo credit:

Having finished the race, we picked up our medals, bottles of beer, and chocolate bars, then quickly got changed into dry clothes before we got any colder. I can honestly say that I couldn’t have been more wet had I gone swimming – every layer had to be rung dry, and yet I didn’t have a single blister!

Three Molehills - beer and medal

It wasn’t until we checked the official results in the pub afterwards that we realised that we actually came in last place (for the solo runners anyway – a handful of relay runners were behind us)!! This was a first for all of us, as we’re pretty fast runners, but we were taking it a bit leisurely, plus there was that 10min toilet stop, but still, coming last was a shock! We mostly just found it hilarious, which is all you can do, really.

Three Molehills - team last place
Team Last Place!

We reckon the reason was two-fold: it was an incredibly fast field, but also, we imagine all the slower runners took one look out their window on Sunday morning and went right back to bed! Which is the sensible option, but definitely not the fun one.

Three Molehills - afterwardsThree Molehills - triathlon leggings after
Photo credits: Amy Heinen

I ran this race in some leggings that I sewed myself (which you can read about on tomorrow) and they felt great throughout the entire race. I’m proud to say that I even got a few compliments from the other runners while I was running, too! They look like they were made to be doused in mud – you can barely tell it for the wild, geometric print, perfect…

Three Molehills, 23 November 2014, 2:40:40

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Varied shoes for varied running

18 September 2014, 17:33

I swear I used to be a runner that just owned one pair of running shoes. But somehow over the years I seem to have accumulated a bunch of different pairs, each of which has a different purpose in my training schedule.

New Balance Minimus Road Shoe (10v1, zero drop)

NB Minimus Road
I wear these for… Tempo and Threshold runs, like Run dem Crew. These are extremely light road shoes, and they’re best for anything fast.
What I like: They’re super lightweight, they’ve got a really wide toebox so my toes can splay as wide as they possibly can and still not touch the sides! They’ve also got an integrated tongue on one side so they’re really comfortable with no chafe points.
What I don’t: The sole is designed for the road, but they’ve got crap traction in the rain. My feet also get super sore from the impact if it’s anything longer than 10k (I’m still building my foot strength!).

New Balance Minimus Trail Shoe (1010v2, 4mm drop)

NB Minimus Trail
I wear these for… Summer trail running mostly, though before I got the road-specific pair above, I did all my road mileage in these, including running London marathon.
What I like: Like the other Minimus, these have got a great, wide toe box and the mesh on top keeps my feet nice and cool. There’s more grip to the Vibram soles on these, too, so they’re fine with a bit of Hampstead mud.
What I don’t: If you run on the road too much, the soles really wear down to nothing pretty quickly, and this particular pair had a hard bit of stitching by the forefoot that wore into my right foot for about 6 weeks (a previous pair of the exact same style didn’t have this issue).

Brooks Pure Drift

Brooks Pure Drift
I wear these for… Long distances on the road.
What I like: We bought these specifically because my poor, tender feet were getting overly sore from running anything over 10k on the roads in minimalist shoes. I got black toenails just from the impact forces in London marathon, and we wanted something that was still minimalist, but with some better forefoot cushioning. It took two tries to get the sizing right, but these have also got an adequately-wide toe box. I also love the knobbly laces, which just don’t budge even if they’re only single-knotted.
What I don’t: They’re ever-so-slightly too short for my big toe, which rubs a little bit at the end (but the next bigger size was way too big in the forefoot, making me slide all over the place!). Oh, and the pink. Pitiful (ie: no) choice in colours for women.

Puma Complete Haraka Cross Country Spikes

Puma XC Spikes
I wear these for… Track! Even though I originally bought them for cross country, which it turns out I hate.
What I like: These are lightweight, flashy, and have fantastic traction for the track, even without the spikes in.
What I don’t: My poor toes feel squished together as they’ve not got enough room to splay fully when I land, meaning I tend to get blisters between my toes after long sessions.

UnderArmour SpeedForm XC Trail Shoes

UA Trail Shoes
I wear these for… Winter trail running, when the mud is up to your knees!
What I like: They look totally bonkers, but I love the high tops – they give great ankle support and I’m never worried that I’ll lose a shoe in a bog. They’re also surprisingly lightweight, have a stretchy toebox, and a good, grippy sole.
What I don’t: The sole gets worn down very easily if you have to run on pavements to get to the trails, and they’re an absolute bugger to get on and off when they’re caked in mud!

What about you? How many running-specific shoes do you have? Surely I’m not some crazy outlier here, right?

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The Power of the Trail

3 June 2014, 16:20

I’ve mentioned it a few times, but I’d not really been feeling “back in the game” since London marathon. I’d put the miles in, but they seemed tougher than usual, and even worse was that my mindset wasn’t back, either. I may have run a new PB at Bupa 10k, but it felt tough and mentally I felt like I could’ve just quit and gone and done something else at any moment along the course.

But still I plodded on, knowing it’d come back when it wants to. I especially wanted to go back to my beloved Hampstead Heath trails since, for one reason or another, I’d been busy each Saturday since London and hadn’t been round there in at least two months. Unfortunately, my usual group of Saturday runners were all either recovering from ultras, out of town, or off watching the pro triathletes round Hyde Park. It’s a measure of exactly how hard up I was for some trail time that I just brushed it off, brought my headphones, and hit the Heath on my own.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the weather was gorgeous – warm enough to get away without a jacket (meaning I could run with just my waist pack instead of a full backpack), bright sunshine, and just a hint of soft ground from the previous few days of rain. Being on my own meant that I could go at whatever pace I felt like, without worrying that I was going slower than usual or not racing up the hills as fast as others – I could rumble up and down when I wanted, jump over logs, and dodge dogs without fear of others coming along behind.

Hampstead Heath trail

The best part of being on my own was a renewed sense of adventure that comes with not having run our usual loops for two months – I took a few wrong turns, but then I actively started taking wrong turns just to see new parts of the forest. I was never concerned that I might get lost, as I wasn’t really that concerned with how far I was going to run! In the end, I ran for about two hours and I felt great, both in body and spirit. My legs were happy to have the squishier ground instead of concrete, and my mind certainly relished the time in the forest and a chance to explore. I really, really needed that.

What’s even better though it that it appears to have kickstarted something in me – my Monday longish run seemed to fly by even though I was wearing glasses for the first time ever (I’m getting laser eye surgery so I can’t wear my contact lenses for the week preceding it, and no exercise at all the week after!). A run I was dreading because of the glasses was actually pretty enjoyable, and I ended up going further than I initially set out to do.

Post run selfie with glasses

I also seem to be back on the healthy eating, too, having run through my semi-annual carb and sweet tooth phase, and I’m chugging down my lemon water when it felt like a struggle only last week. I know I’ve got a few months of hard training ahead for the British Transplant Games in August, and Berlin Marathon in September, but it feels like I may once again be finally headed in the right direction.

Next stop: Hackney Half in a few weeks, though with my interruptions in training, I’m thinking now I’ll just run to enjoy it.

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Packing for a long run

25 February 2014, 12:20

I had a request from Rebecca to talk about what I pack for my long runs, so I thought it was a great point to explore since my supplies have evolved over the last several years.

My bare minimum I take for a run (of any length) is my phone and my Oystercard (London transport card – so I can get home should anything go wrong). If I’m wearing a jacket, these will usually go in a pocket, otherwise, they can both fit happily into an armband. When I first started running long runs (I’m going to qualify these as anything over 90min), I pretty much just added water into this mix, usually in the form of my favourite lady Camelbak (see here). This was easy as I was running my long runs around the river, starting and ending right outside home, so I didn’t really need much for the journey there or back, and as soon as I got in the door I could eat or drink something.

OMM backpack mid run

Things became a bit more complex when my trainer started making my long runs hill sessions, too – there obviously aren’t any hills along the river, so I now needed to travel up to Hampstead Heath for my runs. Getting there consisted of a 1km jog to London Bridge, then a 40min tube ride, and then another short run to the park. In the summer, I travel light, only really needing to add an armband pocket with a gel or two, and some cash to buy a bottle of water and a snack for the ride home. Oftentimes I’d fit this into my trusty Camelbak, but I recently bought an Inov-8 waistpack to give me a bit more storage space (mostly for larger snacks, as I’m trying to mix up gels and “real food” for my fuel).

Innov-8 waist packInnov-8 waist pack

I’ll admit – I was surprised at exactly how big it is when it arrived, but I’ve taken it on a few test runs when fully packed and it stays out of the way of my arms and doesn’t bounce, so it seems like a winner!

My default for winter long runs, however, is to wear my OMM running backpack. I’m not exactly a tiny girl, but I’ve got the various cinches and sliders on the absolute shortest and near-smallest settings and it stays very nearly bounce-free, providing I pack it with the contents tightly at the bottom of the bag. I’ve found that it really weighs me down for speedwork, but for my long runs, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference when I’m already trudging up hills in ankle-deep mud into a headwind!

OMM backpack

I probably do the girl thing of overpacking, but my main reason for needing the backpack in winter is so I’ve got a jacket to put on after my run – otherwise I get really shaky, yellow-fingers numb and cold on my tube ride home, which is not a good thing!

So for the typical wintry Saturday long run (anywhere between 2-3hrs at the moment), I’ll pack:

  • Phone

  • Oystercard

  • Chapstick

  • Tissues

  • Plastic bag for my phone in case it starts raining

  • keys

  • Headphones

  • Water bottle with nuun inside

  • Banana

  • 1-2 gels or Shotbloks

  • Baggy of whatever run fuel from Feed Zone Portables I made the day before

  • Jacket for afterwards

  • Dry gloves & hat for afterwards

  • Spare phone battery

  • Skratch hydration powder sachet (to mix with a bottle of water afterwards)

  • Cash to buy water or a candy bar afterwards

As you can see, I’m not exactly packing light! I’ve been carrying a fair amount through all my toughest training runs, which should hopefully make things feel much easier when I’m off racing the next consecutive three weekends(!). But that’s the point of training hard, right – to make race day feel easy in comparison.

My first race is Bath Half this weekend (where I’ll really only need to carry my phone and a gel or two), then the weekend after I’ve got Flatline (where bags are stashed at the top of the hill) and the Marrowthon 10k (just my phone for anything under an hour), but the third weekend is the Spitfire 20 miler. I had been hoping to use it as a dress rehearsal for London marathon, but there are fewer water stations at Spitfire than the (really, almost excessive) every mile water stations at London, and also fewer cheering stations for friends to resupply me, so I may wear my Innov-8 pack even though I probably won’t for the big day itself.

I know I’m not alone in running with backpacks – I see an awful lot of run commuters and weekend long runners wearing them, too, but what’s everyone’s view on bringing supplies along on race day?

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20 miles in the mud with friends

30 January 2014, 15:22

I ran my first 20 miler of my current training season on Saturday. All my previous 20 mile runs have been done on my usual Thames river route, however – from Tower Bridge to Putney Bridge and around, and while long, the route there is pretty flat.

Saturday’s 20 miler, however, involved a bunch of hills, including three trips up Swains Lane, a several trail hills steep enough to have steps cut into them, and your usual, run of the mill inclined meadows. Oh, and there was ankle-deep mud for a good portion of the route, too! Needless to say, this was significantly tougher than my previous long-long runs, but luckily I had excellent company.

Hampstead crew collage
Thanks very much to Richard Keller for the photos!

I totally love my Saturday trail runs around Hampstead Heath anyway, but running with a great group of people makes the time pass so much more quickly, and also it means there are others there when you start to get a bit low on blood sugar and can’t remember which way you’re supposed to head next!

I knew I had a long session in my plan, so I got up to Hampstead Heath early enough to get one short loop in on my own, then once I met the others at the meeting point, I carried on with the faster group for one large loop around. Finally, only Cory and I were left needing to run further still, so he and I valiantly set off to do another large loop just the two of us.

I’m so, so glad he was with me, because I probably would’ve just done the shorter loop on my own since I know it much better, but we were definitely able to prop each other up and take it slow. Plus there’s the added fun of cursing that long, steep stretch which now has a full stream running the length of the path that kills me every time!

So after 3+ hours of running, Cory took this shot of me:

Me at the end of my muddy 20 miler

I’m mostly smiling because I survived! We then ran together back to the tube, where we refuelled, put on warmer, dry clothes, and generally caught every crazy look from other passengers staring at our muddy legs.

Want to know what the hardest part of running 20 miles in muddy hills is though? That last, perfectly flat one kilometer home after I’ve been sat on the tube!

No trail run for me this Saturday however – it’s the return of Flatline 10! Yes, that’s ten repeats up and down Swains Lane for a time trial, and most definitely the toughest 10 miles you’ve ever run. It’s organised by EnergyLabs but open to all – just meet at 10am at the top of Swains Lane (so go to Archway tube if you don’t want to do an extra uphill before it eve starts!).

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In deep

14 January 2014, 12:49

January is the time of year for people to start new exercise habits, new training plans, and – if they’re running a spring marathon – wake up and suddenly realise they’ve got to start training ASAP.

But for me, I’ve been training for London Marathon since November, and I’m now in my third monthly plan from my trainer. November was all about getting back into good habits after a 6 week planned break, December was where she really upped my mileage and introduced me to “doubles” for the first time (that is, two runs on the same day), and January is taking this all further with one of those doubles as a tempo run, plus running my main tempo session with the fastest, “Elites” group at Run dem Crew, too.

In a lot of ways, I really enjoy being a slave to a good training plan – I enjoy the consistency of it, not having to think about how far or fast I should go, and knowing that if I push hard for three weeks, there’s a stepback week at the end of it for me. For instance, last week I ran 7 times in 6 days for a total of 73km (nearly 46 miles), which I’m pretty proud of.

The weather has not been the most optimal for running this month, and I feel sorry for the resolutioners, because this really is the worst time of year for running anyhow, let along when you’re new to it and everything’s a painful slog. But with the wet weather comes the great opportunity to run the trails and get muddy.

Muddy trainers

I’ve spoken before how I really don’t enjoy cross country, and some of you were confused at how I could enjoy trail running. I mean, they’re both off-road and muddy, right?

Not so much – my Saturday long, trail runs are a great mix of road, paths (some gravel, some woodland), open fields, hills, and some flat stretches here and there. There’s always something to look out for – tree roots, cars, pedestrians, dogs, steps, flowing streams, bridges, boot camp classes – and you’ve got to judge these hazards while moving at speed with other people and keeping your forward momentum going and your core strong to prevent any sudden movements that could lead to injury. The solid and flat bits allow you to regain something approaching normal form, and it’s a great workout overall.

Watching the Cross Country championships in Edinburgh over the weekend just made me jealous – sure, the course was entirely in open fields with some hills (and a single, hilarious hay bale to jump over!), but where were the Somme-like levels of mud I had to endure during my horrible two cross country outings? If English cross country was like what you see on tv, I might’ve actually enjoyed it. But in reality, it’s not like that at all.

The main difference between my Saturday trail runs and the cross country meets is that you there’s variety in the former. I don’t mind mud when it’s just one of a mix of experiences (and I’ve got the right footwear!), so I vastly prefer trail running to make me a more well-rounded runner.

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You don't have to love it all

10 December 2013, 11:10

The running calendar goes in cycles throughout the year – Spring and Fall are traditionally the main racing times for half and full marathons, Summer is when shorter, speedier races like 5 and 10Ks take centre stage, and Winter – well, winter is the time for Cross Country (XC).

Last winter was the first year my Crew entered the local XC league (Met League for those of us in London), and I figured I’d go and help represent the ladies, not really knowing anything about it other than I was told I’d need spikes and I’d get muddy.

This was an understatement. Having never run XC at school, I wasn’t really prepared for the Somme-like levels of mud that English XC races were staged in, but as I approached the course, seeing teenaged boys with mud flecks over their eyebrows, it was beginning to sink in.

Cross Country

I’m certainly not a softie, but I didn’t enjoy either of my XC races one bit – it wasn’t just the treacherous levels of mud meaning you couldn’t actually get a decent forward-motion footfall for the entire race, or the fact that you’d stand around for hours before and after in the freezing cold with wet feet and numb hands, nor the fact that they take place on Saturday morning which are usually my (adored!) long run time – it was really a combination of all of these things.

To my credit, even though I really didn’t enjoy the first race, I volunteered to run a second one the following month just to make sure it wasn’t a one-off, or effects of a lingering flu that affected my enjoyment. And after suffering through the second race, crossing the 6km women’s finish line shouting “I’ve never been so happy to be born a woman!” (the men race an extra lap for an 8km race), I had already decided Cross Country was definitely not for me.

Running XC

My times (well, placements) weren’t all that bad, and I probably could’ve earned some points for my crew had I stuck with it, but ultimately, I run because I enjoy it. And if I’m not enjoying one flavour of it and it’s actually conflicting with an area of my training that I really love, then I really don’t see the point in continuing just for some sort of badge of honour.

And now that I have run some Cross Country, I can fully understand why the forced experience of it at school has turned a lot of people off running for life, my husband included. I think my outlook on running would certainly be different had that been my first introduction to the sport, too. But running comes in a lot of different forms – track, road, trail, hills, speedwork, long, race, social – and you don’t have to love them all.

Muddy feet


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Running abroad - Bells Mill Park

12 November 2013, 15:13

I’m off in Virginia for a week visiting family, and after three days’ straight of sitting for 5+ hours (a drive up to Wales and back over the weekend, then a transatlantic flight) I was in sore need of a run.

It was quite fun sitting at my parents’ house last night plotting routes – they both walk a lot but really only stick to their back streets and prefer to loop that than go further afield. They’d also never seen Map My Run before, which I always use in conjunction with Google to plot out where to go (Protip: on the Google Maps app, load up your map then type “ok maps” to cache it for offline use!).

I’d seen that Bells Mill Park was just around the corner and featured a “2.5 mile circular running trail”, which seemed good enough for me, so I headed out there this morning. Apart from the few kilometers along a 4 lane highway to get to the park, the run was absolute bliss. I never mind having shorter distance loops when they’re well marked – you can always go round a few times when you want a longer run.

Bells Mill Park

Big, double thumbs up to Chesapeake for the maintenance of the trail! It was closely mown, wide, and incredibly clearly marked – there were spraypainted arrows literally every five feet, and a few distance markers as well. In fact, it looked to me like the park recently hosted a cross country meet, as there were even starting corrals and a finishing chute! There were only a few bits of soft ground – nothing like the English XC mudfests!

The only shame is that I was the only person in the entire park at 7:30am on a Tuesday. Maybe there were more runners or dog walkers a bit earlier, or on the weekends, but with such a nice facilities (plenty of parking, picnic tables, and portaloos, too) and scenery (right along the Elizabeth River marshes) it just didn’t seem right to have it all to myself on such a sunny, crisp Autumn morning.

I’ll have to go back a few more times this week to show them it’s being used!

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Bacchus half marathon - race report

10 September 2013, 10:45

If you’re not familiar with Bacchus, it’s a fancy dress, off-road, hilly half-marathon (or full marathon if you fancy doing two laps) with wine tasting every two miles and free wine and hog roast at the end. Yes, it is exactly as much fun as it sounds!

I first ran it last year in 2012, and having sewn my sailor girl costume in wicking lycra to great success but not having had much cause to wear it in the intervening year, I decided I might as well wear it again this year too! The nice side effect of that is that you get to see a nice comparison between my body since last year (and I was deep into training for Amsterdam marathon then, too!)

Bacchus half - comparison

With all the mention of wine, you may have missed a crucial word in my description: hilly. The race starts off in Denbies’ vineyards, then briefly through Dorking and then for the remainder of the race it snakes through woodland trails and up the sides of hills, until you get a blissfully steep downhill on the last 2km which lets you sprint finish pretty much by gravity alone.

I plotted the elevation again this year with my GPS app, which I’ve cleaned up so you can see exactly how hilly I’m talking about…

Bacchus elevation

You’d be mistaken if you think the sharp blip at around 14km is the one to be concerned about – look again at the relentless uphill climb from approximately 3km-9km – this is the one that will turn your legs and spirit to jelly! I had the advantage this year of already being through the course the year before, so I was mentally prepared for it, but the big difference was that last year I was essentially “fun running” it as my reward for getting through my marathon training.

This year I had different goals in mind:

  • To beat last year’s time (1:58). I felt fairly confident I’d be able to do this, since I hadn’t hill-trained at all last year, and this year I’d been hill running every Saturday (including Swain’s Lane), plus I’d switched to forefoot running and just come off two months of track training.

  • To earn a new PB. My current half marathon PB was set at my first ever half, in Paris 2012 (1:47), and I thought I might be able to beat this despite the hills, but that was only if I could maintain a 5min/km pace throughout, which seemed iffy.

  • To win a prize. The first three males and females win a prize, along with the first from each age category. I was the 5th female last year, but there were far more runners this year, so this was the toughest goal, and not one I’d admitted to many people.

Bacchus composite

I set off at the front of the pack, with about 20 men ahead of me, but maintained my position of lead female up until about 4 miles, when I was overtaken by a very friendly Barnes Runner lady, and we had a great chat for a few minutes before she moved on ahead. The great advantage to having a strict “no headphones” policy plus fancy dress is that the runners actually talk to each other during the race, with the costumes providing great conversation starters! I got to chat to quite a few runners in the first half (even during the rain!), but I was on my own for long stretches of the latter half of the race, so it wasn’t quite as easygoing as last year.

My husband brought along the DSLR again this year, but thought to bring his bike, too, so he was able to zoom around the shortcut trails and snap me at a few points along the route. I must admit, though, that I was fairly annoyed to see him at about 4km into that relentless 6km climb, when I was feeling well and truly spent, chewed up, and spat out by the monster hill. I remember trying my hardest to smile, but looking at the photos afterwards, I’m so glad he decided to take these photos where he did.

Bacchus - long climb

The vista over Dorking and across to Box Hill is spectacular, but you can see every ounce of effort and sheer determination in my face and legs. In short, you can see exactly how hard I worked for this race.

I used a lot of the same mental tricks I learned during my recent track race – I find when the going gets really tough and my brain starts to let doubts creep in, counting to 20 over and over in time with my breaths really helps me. I also used the few flat and downhill segments to mentally refresh me – nothing more complicated than thinking to myself “Look, this is flat and the forest is lovely. Isn’t this refreshing? Let’s pick up the pace to make up for the next climb!”

Nutrition-wise, I went very minimally this time around, with only one pack of margarita Shot Bloks and a few sips of water from about half the water stations. I’d normally take at least one extra gel in there to be comfortable, but having practiced with less on my long runs, I knew that 3× 2 bloks would be enough to fuel me around.

So, back to those goals – how did I do? Well, I am absolutely over the moon to report that I achieved all three!!. My official time was 1:43, meaning that I beat last year’s time by over 15 minutes, set a new PB by almost 5 minutes, and ended up as the 3rd female over the line, meaning I won a prize!!

Bacchus shirts

The prize itself was almost inconsequential – for me it was the act of winning it – but I ended up winning a very nice Gore long sleeved running top that is very me indeed – dark purple with hot pink seaming and it’ll get lots of wear in a few months’ time! On the left above is the official race shirt, designed by my friend Laurie King. Isn’t it fantastic? It’s great to have a take-home technical tee that I love every bit as the race itself.

Bacchus is such a friendly race, with the warmest organisers, volunteer marshals, and other runners, and even in the rain and cold this year it managed to maintain a great village fete atmosphere. If I could give this entire race a giant hug, I would.

Bacchus half marathon, 9 September 2013, 1:43:19

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Offroad running - Epping Forest

5 September 2013, 09:42

For the past six years, the vast majority of my runs have been along the Thames. With some nudging from my trainer, this year I’ve switched from running my Saturday long runs around the river circuit, to instead heading up to Hampstead Heath most Saturday mornings to work hills into the mix. The only downsides to river running that I can tell are the wind (sometimes fierce enough to make forward motion a struggle!) and the complete and utter lack of hills (though I recognise that for a lot of you that’s a bonus, not a downside!).

The Hampstead loop incorporates the formidable Swain’s Lane (of Pain), but also a fair few smaller hills, and is a great mix of road, trail, forest, fields, and bridleways. It’s usually the only time of the week that my trainers get a break from the pavement, and when I last took time off to taper to & recover from the Copenhagen marathon, I was really craving that route by the end of the six weeks.

Epping Forest

A few friends had organised a trip out to Epping Forest over the winter, but I wasn’t able to make it then, so I jumped at the chance when I heard my friend Murdo was organising another trip out there last Saturday. I’d run in Epping Forest once before when we were camping at Debden, and I can safely say it was one of the worst runs of my life! I got unspeakably lost almost immediately after leaving the campsite, the GPS was useless when there’s no signal to load maps, the Forest maps I did have were laughably inadequate (they have much better maps now!), and on top of all that, I had (for the only time in my running career) to squat in the woods like a common bear. Or Pope.

Even still, I wasn’t put off running Epping Forest again, especially not with other people who’d run it before, and I was keen for a change of scenery and to conquer some new hills. Bonus points that Saturday was utterly perfect weather for running – dappled sunshine through the trees and just barely cool enough to require leggings (in my book anyway). The paths and bridleways in Epping Forest are nicely maintained, and at this time of year, there were only one or two spots where it was difficult to avoid getting your trainers muddy.

Bonus points that the blackberry bushes were in full swing, so myself and the other country-raised runners pretty much made it a dash between bushes! I can report that running with a handful of blackberries does not really help your form, mind…

Epping Forest

The big downside is that Epping Forest is really poorly waymarked, and it’s stupidly easy to get lost, even if you’ve been before. So the inevitable happened, but we asked a fellow runner for directions, and he ended up running with us for the next 40 minutes to show us the way! An analysis of my GPS map afterwards shows that he ended up taking us the long way around even after living in the area his whole life, so I don’t feel too bad that a bunch of urban runners missed a turn, too.

If you’d like to run Epping Forest with a safety net of waymarked (and measured!) routes, get the tube to Loughton or Debden station, then pick up one of the official trails.


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