Gore-tex Transalpine and what it meant to me!
Where to start? As you will see from the title this is a personal blog more than a professional one.
I have written so many professional articles/blogs for different areas of the endurance world and have done a few personal ones, but I feel this one will be a little more personal.
To start with this was not my idea. My good friend James Cadge came to me (as he often does) excited about a big challenge which, this time, was Transalpine 7 days running- 3 ultras, 2 marathons and 2 x 20 mile stages with over 2-3000m climbing and descending each day. When he first approached me I was anti the idea as I was really enjoying my MTB and had no real drive to get the running back up to that level. Added to this there was also the money to raise for the entry and logistic. So I said to James if he can find the funding then I would be up for it.
Over a month must have past and as I had heard nothing from James, I assumed I was going to be focused on riding still, when I get the call from James…
“So I have the funding for the whole event”
My first thought was oh shit! When’s the race?
We had just over 4 months to get sorted. James had managed to secure sponsorship from Mydleton Major Estate agents which was just amazing to get. I also managed to get Gore Apparel to supply racing kit and as ever, Torq Fuel were there for nutrition- so we were extremely lucky to get so much support.
Now I do run most days as I have a husky and so we are always out at some point on a run (nothing major though in summer) but it was time to get a focus on, get my drive back and find my motivation! Part of my motivation also came in an additional challenge- in 2015 I completed the Craft Transalp MTB race and so if I could complete the run version I could be the first athlete to do so.
First on my list was to sort my diet out- no more rubbish at all! Now anyone who knows me knows I am a person of extremes and so thanks to some guidance from Sam Humphrey who I was coaching for XC I got the hardest 2 weeks out the way and started to lose weight (just over 5kg by race start). My prime reason for this weight loss was to decrease the impact on my joints as I descended the mountains and therefore I wanted any unnecessary weight gone.
Training- well I know what I needed to do. Historically self-coaching had never been the best method for me, but this time I was on it. I had had so much success with my athletes over the last few years I had to get this right, I wanted to get it right.
I have coached ultra-runners before and still do and so looked at what had worked well for them and also how I could improve and adapt some training sessions. Now living in Salisbury was never going to give me 2-3000m climbs, so the tyre dragging method came out to create over load on all my local climbs. This, added with some free weight work at home was the strength I was going to need to climb.
The bigger problem would be the downhills as it requires technique to be smooth to ensure not too much load would go through the knees, hips and ankles. So on local hills again I would practise the skill of flying downhill, making as little contact with the ground as possible and focus on where I am landing each time. Just like on a Mountain bike picking the line is also so important. This along with the strength work would give my joints some protection.
The endurance! Well I have a coaching method for this that has worked for a lot of my athletes and so will not go into too much detail here, but consistency of correct intensity is vital and so I set about working out what I would need to be working at and then building my endurance training around this, with the odd trail marathon that I would beast myself on.
The extra part to the training was to run with James. We met for our longer runs mainly so I could gage his progress, and so we could bond as would be spending lot of time together. We also make sure we were eating and drinking properly. I was really impressed with James and training was spot on each time we meet up.
Personally once I ran my trail marathon and really pushed myself, I felt things were coming together really well.
One of the hardest things for me was refocusing on my running rather than MTB. I went to so many MTB events during my training (even WEMBO in Italy) and had to choose not to take my bike to any of them. I had to run and run and knew if I took a bike then I would end up riding. It was certainly not helped by everyone saying “man you should have brought your bike the trails are amazing” but I did find that heading off on foot still allowed me to see how amazing the trails were. Discipline is what is needed to succeed and so I kept to it.
As with many of us there were personal things to be dealing with as well as work and my training. My Dad, who had been poorly for some time but who always seemed to pull through passed away, not long after my Grandad- both of whom my Mum had cared for. This has left a massive void in my Mum’s life and has not been easy to move on from. This is where the training becomes more important than prep for an event, as it becomes a coping mechanism (as it does for so many others as well). It does not replace the loss but sure helps manage the emotions. I am very lucky to have a great group of friends and an amazing family that all offered support and so to you all, thank you for your help in a tough time.
A key part to the success of this event was going to be time in the mountains prior to the event start. I have worked in the mountains, climbed, hiked, cycled, mtb’d Transalp, skied and so had full respect for them. We needed at least a week before the race following a plan of little and often running and hiking- higher each day, and for this we would go to my second home Chamonix, where I have spent so much time and somewhere I knew we could get the right training done.
Now for the happy interlude, during this time I had met up with Lily which was amazing as we clicked perfectly. I am happy to say that while I write this I am at Pyla Dunes on the west coast of France working and recovering while Lily throws herself off monster sand dunes training to be a paragliding pilot, a holiday she had booked with no idea we would both be in France- perfect timing.
Again back to the story, we made the 11hr journey in the van to Chamonix. The timing was great as it was UTMB week, this meant a permeant buzz around the town (although I do prefer it when quieter). The real bonus was it gave me a chance to meet Kilian Jornet, an endurance hero of mine, was so chuffed!! Being in Chamonix also meant that we had every outdoor brand at our finger tips- very handy if during our training we found we needed anything else.
I must mention at this point that whilst in Chamonix, James and I (oh and Oakley) were all living in the van- a tight squeeze and a very good opportunity for James and I to bond before the event itself. To fit in each night, I slept on the bed with all luggage on it, James had a camping mat on the floor and Oakley pretty much went where ever he wanted (normally James pillow). James soon learnt how much a Husky can moult.
What better way to get to know your run buddy than sharing a T5 for 9 days!!! It was actually an amazing time, we got on really well, I did all the chores James read his many books, I cooked James read his book, and I discovered that James likes reading!
Our training in Chamonix was going great- we were all ready at 1000m and we got some great runs in. A big thanks to Sam Pantling (who has also lived in the region) for phoning and checking in with advice throughout the week.
Fuel was also going really well- we had been using Torq Bulq Pasta to help us get some good protein in, so easy to cook as just we used the jet boil to pour water over the pasta and in around 6 minutes the pasta was good to go. Big thank you to Matt and Torq for sorting this.
Our Gore kit was proving great as well, although we had 5 days of 30 plus degrees until we got to test out the water proofs.
We watched a few of the UTMB events start and finish so fuelling our own motivation to get to our own start line.
Whilst we were out in Chamonix we met up with Scott Cornish for a few drinks and also found Oakley’s dog career for the week of the race. Kelsey and Ross who had Chance a lovely huge malamute took Oakley in on the Friday morning that we headed off on the 5hr drive to Fischen in Germany.
Oh my god, what a shit drive! In the pouring rain mainly across Switzerland- the roads were pants, the Swiss drive slow (slow down for everything it would appear) and so we turned up in Fischen tired, hungry and frustrated from the drive. Except James- he read his book and slept, and therefore turned up refreshed and content! I turned up tired, frustrated and hungry.
Upon reaching Fischen we were not actually sure we had arrived in the right place. The clearly marked signage for the UTMB (the largest ultra race in the world) had not been replicated by our race organisers and the crowd of people in run kit had vanished. We were lost until we saw two guys that looked like runners appear- we pulled over and started speaking broken German, only to find out they were Dutch and fluent in English! More importantly we were in the right place- we had made it to the start line.
We registered on Saturday morning, and this made everything start to feel real. Although James was excited to collect all the goodies- Tshirts, our 100l Saloman bag, plus lots of other little bits. We also found the Expo area all set up and so we had a look around. Now if this were Transalp, your bike is second most important piece of kit after yourself. Well for a running event your shoes are the bike, and we both became convinced we needed a spare pair of shoes. However, peace of mind at this point was super important, so we both treated ourselves to a rather costly pair of new shoes!
Our final task before the race was to move all our kit we would need for the week into the 100L bag. With no support carrying spare kit to each stage finish like Transalp, James and I had opted to sleep on pre organised sports hall floors, which meant the event organisers would take our bag to the end of the stage each day. You can imagine two guys that had now been living in a T5 for 9 days trying to sort all their kit out, it was a smooth operation obviously!
Once we had finished registration, we found out the results of the last (biggest race) of the UTMB from a group from Munich that had it live on their Ipad. I was keen to know the results, as was super pleased to find that Kilian came in second- not bad after running up Everest twice this year!
7PM race brief, we stayed for half of this then went back to the van and read through all the details again for day 1. Race brief can start to play with your mind a little as they start talking about the dangers of running across mountains, I have spent so many years in the mountains in all different ways from MTB, Climbing, Mountaineering and so I had the most important tool for the mountains which is respect, never taking anything for granted when it comes to the hills.
Stage 1 Fischen - Lech
Race start morning came round super fast, we had breakfast with a few hundred other Ultra runners and then had to drop our bags off to the lorries. It was a very wet start and so we had most of our kit on or at least in our run vests. They were breaking us in easy on day one with approx 27 miles and 2200m of climbing and around 1600m descending.
James and I had gone through the profile and worked out all the cut off times, we had 3 feed stations to get through before heading to the finish line. We would run smooth on the flats, steady on the climbs and safely on the downs.
The count down starts with the music of road to hell (nice touch) gun goes and we are off, as we experience you get to a point where you need a race to start and we were definitely at that point.
Straight away we kept on the K’s pace for the gradual 10K incline, all going great. Rain eased so some kit off and back on it, now this is an important point, not carrying on in water proofs when not needed- it’s key to stop and remove layers and then go or you can over heat, need more fluid etc. I was reminded by Sam Pantlings words on the phone,
“any issues, anything- stop, sort it then move on” cheers Sam
It’s so true. Don’t push on or you can cause more harm/damage.
Our first disappointment, we made it to feed station 1 with well over an hour before cut off! Awesome and everything felt great, we have these great xmugs (folding mug) for hot drinks and on arriving we both went for Tea, typical Brits loving a cup of oh no what? Fruit tea!!!!! Come on really. (it was actually nice)
A quick 5 min pause here to take on fluids and eat before we started to climb for the next 10K, proper climb now heading up and up, the running poles now came into their own, a steady pace again saw us into the next feed station with plenty of time before cut off.
Being super on it I was looking around at the other pairs near us so for future reference we can see if we are holding pace dropping pace etc, another important point using people around as a loose gage on your own performance.
Stage 1 finish in Lech was a great feeling, we had done it, amazing views and tough conditions but our plan worked, fuel went well using Torq gels and Torq carb drinks then topping up with solid fuel at the feed stations. Our Gore Run Wear was awesome and we finished feeling pretty good. Now the prep for stage 2 starts!
Initially the thought of heading out again the following day was not all that appealing, though the race organisers where very smart and set the shortest day as day 2, but the climbing was the same in half the distance of day 1, so the little mental help you got from knowing it was shorter soon disappears when you look at the profile! That said we were both in great shape and so started the prep, recovery shake, more fluids, shower, wash kit, self massage and stretch, more fuel taken on board, into compression kit, short walk around the pretty town of Lech to help encourage blood flow to the muscles then lay down and chill until evening race meal.
The food was perfect each evening and it was always a great atmosphere with 600 plus other runners all talking and eating. If I am honest though, I still believe you are in your own world working out your own way of dealing with what is to come and so there is noise all around but I was definitely locked away in my own world planning how to deal with each part of the next day.
I have found with all the endurance events I have done, that this theme runs deep with me, I keep my head constantly working out each part of what is to come and how I will cope and manage the situations, it’s as if my body is there with everyone but my mind is busy sorting out my plan.
Stage 2 Lech – St Anton
Ohh a cold start -2 degrees
The first two stages we would be put up in hotels which was great as we could get into a routine in privacy before sharing a sports hall floor with 300 other athletes, it also meant kit can be washed and dried, and breakfast was easier to deal with.
This stage was the shortest of the whole week, 15 miles but with over 2500m of climbing which meant we were in for some steep hills! I set a pace for James and I for the first 2-3 k which were flatter through the town, the pace was to get us ahead of the traffic on the single file steep tracks. James protested and we dropped back a bit, then to be greeted with queues. “You knew this would happen didn’t you” said James, as we got a little frustrated as we watch time ticking by.
As we reached the snowline we could start to over take and get our own rhythm and pace going.
It was getting more icy and deeper snow, with a few sections of really concentrating on foot placement. This went on for at least an hour until we made it to the feed station, a quick fuel up and we were off but now trying to stay upright as we skied in our trainers down and out of the snow line.
Towards the end of the stage James was getting serious knee pain and I was having to coach and motivate him through it, use the poles on the down hills as well as the ups to try and take some load off. I started to use the mind games of just to the next river or just to the next uphill, trying to get him through the day to the finish.
Using other athletes around you is a great way to motivate yourself or a run partner, telling James we finished ahead of those two yesterday so let’s just get passed them and we are done. It worked we got through day two. James was not in a good place and so we had to set about a plan to get a sports massage and some tapping.
I am sure James won’t mind me mentioning, but he likes to keep himself to himself- and when it comes to the European theme of let’s all get naked and shower together etc he is definitely not keen. So for this following event to happen to James had us both in stitches. I came back to our room after booking a massage for James, to be greeted by James in a panic asking if I had any clean boxes! “ah no mate I have just compression kit for post running” I went out came back this time to “ I have sorted it! “ James was stood in his pyjama bottoms cutting the legs off making them into shorts. This was hilarious, I now told James the massage was with an Austrian chap called Marcus. Off he goes, me still dying with laughter.
James gets back, I asked if all ok he just goes into his room, 5 mins later walks out wearing a plastic thong over his new pyjama shorts and says “ he made me wear this!” that was it my stomach hurt so much from laughing, this was the world’s smallest jock made of plastic with elastic straps. What a laugh
As normal we head to pasta party number 3, still having the odd laugh at James. Once eaten back into prep routine for day 3.
Stage 3 St-Anton to Landeck
We were heading out on an Ultra today going to be at least 30 miles with 2500m up and 2600m down! James managed to sleep after waking in a few cold sweats about being massaged by big Austrian men!
After all the humiliation for James, his knee was still not feeling great and this was going to be a tough day. It was raining which meant conditions underfoot were going to be tough as well as the distance, climbing and descending. As was the norm we had a few K of flat before heading up, a long climb, 1hr30 at least of up, this seemed to be going ok and James knee was holding up, as soon as we hit the decent it was a different story. His pace slowed and he was doing all he could to protect his knee, this went on for at least 4k when we reached a medic on a quad, I had said to James a few K before we need to make a decision- can he carry on or not by the next aid station, that decision was made at 10k when the medic spoke to him and explained the rest of the day James knew there was no way he could cope with the descents in that amount of pain. So stood facing another 30 plus K on my own we parted ways. The medic said to me to get moving as cut off was close as without realising, James and I had lost a lot of time, so head down with around 5k still to go I headed off.
What followed was 5K of mud! I mean serious mud, all downhill, people were falling over everywhere, I took two big tumbles and got covered but eventually made it to the first Aid station after close to 3hrs moving time, quick fuel and off, now a flat section so I cranked the pace up to around 5min K pace, feeling good then as I hit the next climb started to feel really drained and weakness came across me! I paused and thought it through, and yes with the mud sliding I had not taken on fuel, then the faster pace and going through the aid station too quickly I was empty (idiot) I told myself off took on a gel and 500ml of fuel and told myself to keep on it. This is a key point to anyone taking on endurance events it can be anything that distracts you from your nutrition and this can be costly so pay attention at all times.
Surprise surprise, in about 10 minutes all was feeling good again, race saved.
Towards the end of the stage I had meet up with a Pro 70.3 triathlete on a break (as you do) Razza was a strong runner and she helped me run a strong last 5k to the finish where James was stood waiting.
What an epic day of physical and emotional feelings, it was done though. Time to catch up with James who had set up out camp spot in the sports hall.
I went to the event organisers and told them James was pulling out and I was now running as a solo, basically each morning you had to sign in with another pair then just head out on your own.
More emotions, James was getting a flight home the next day and although I did not say it, him leaving was tough, not having the banter and someone to share the highs and lows with was not going to be easy. I lost my Transalp ride partner on the penultimate day as he broke his shoulder and collar bone, I had support crew and so still had company but this was going to be me by myself.
James and I went into Town and grab a drink I even had a glass of red wine, looking at day 4 it was another Ultra, so I started the process of re-fuelling stretching, self massage then bed early!
Stage 4 Landeck to Samnaun
I woke early to 100s of athletes getting ready 3hrs before race start?? I was like get back to sleep for gods sake it does not take 3hrs to get ready! But not a lot you can do, I then got some great news, James was staying he was travelling with the race organisers to the finish each day and was going to support me! Yes! I think I could of cried. This piece of news turned a really tough day into just a tough one.
We are off, I signed in with a Dutch pair who James and I had meet in Fischen, these guys had done the event at least 4 times and were top blokes. I started the stage focused on my own fuel and pace and started to move up amongst the runners ahead. Day 4 went really well, I felt in control all day and over the top of some crazy high mountains but was strong and so pressed on.
There was a long descent to the finish today and on very uneven terrain at some point I over reached with my left leg and my adductors had to do a good job to stabilise me, onwards no issue. The last 3k I could see a few pairs up ahead and why oh why did I, but I did chase them down, then that adductor with 1k to go came back and reminded me of earlier, ouch some pain now through the finish line but man I was now in a lot of discomfort.
Day 4 was done but looking to day 5 was not positive at all.
At the end of stage 4 we had to get a bus to the sports hall 15 minutes away, add to this no James at the finish line so I had to just sit and wait 30 minutes seemed like forever I had raced harder today and with the pull in my leg was mentally getting a bit down.
Once James turned up we got the bus back and I messaged my sports physio Angela of Muscle Matters, who I have totally trust in. She explained what was likely to have happened and how to treat it, so I did all I could with massage and ibruprofen gel stretching and compression. We were meant to head back on the bus to then get a gondola up a mountain for dinner, really? I had spotted a restaurant about 5 min walk away and said to James no way am I going anywhere other than local.
James was a great help went to local shop picked up extra food and paid for our meal, oh we were in Switzerland so that was not a cheap meal.
I had been in touch with Lily (my girlfriend) and she was trying to motivate me. My kids called that evening as well which gave me a real lift. So I would get up go to the start line and see what happens, in my mind I was working out how to explain to people I had pulled out- so far I have never not finished any of my races that I have competed in! I told myself this is a positive and that I would get through, but man when I went to bed I was not in a good way, any movement hurt. I have one last massage in my sleeping bag, which James said looked so wrong (don’t know what he meant) I was asleep a good hour earlier than previous nights.
Stage 5 Samnaun to Scuol
Morning, I laid still not wanting to move as the fear of the pain and then not being able to start was so strong. In the end the need to pee won over, I got up, achiles a little stiff but adductor no pain? Walked to the loo, no pain. Ok start the getting ready- process was keeping quite- I told myself at any point it will come back! Breakfast done bus to start line, message Lily and just said at start line lets see what happens.
I think I spent the ascent waiting to feel the pain but nothing, then half way through the day every downhill movement was agony, I was not doing well, losing time and places on all downhills, I worked out in my head flats were fine, slight downhill manageable up hills all good, just proper downhill was torture. I made it to the last 5k of downhill sat down and had a real battle with myself as to how can I get down, I took pain killers and waited then got up and went, after 1k it started to ease. The pain killers were working! I was so pleased to see that finish line (Day 5 was brutal physically and mentally)
Stage 6 Scuol to Prad Am Stilfserjoch
After the pain of stage 5 this was going to be it for me I would start then stop. But no, the pain was gone, like the day before I waited for it to happen on the downhill but again nothing, so on wards and what a stage. I could not believe the pain was gone, I had bruising on my adductors so had definitely caused some damage, on my return Angela explained that my other muscles had managed to compensate and almost cut out using the damaged muscle! Got to love the human body.
The most amazing stage! I went with music today- 2hrs of Bob Marley as the sun shone. The trail was a gentle down hill for a good few K, the views were amazing. Today I truly felt the energy flowing through nature and in to me, we ran up through a beautiful gorge with the water powerfully running down, my pace and rhythm driven by this and the great music. This is the day that it all clicked, feeling physically strong, mentally strong and I completely believed I could finish Transalpine. We had the most amazing scenery and weather, you could not have asked for a better lead into the final day. It’s odd but the best day is the one I have least to say about. It just worked.
Stage 7 Prad Am Stilfserjoch to Sulden
At last, the morning of the final day. It was to be another early start as the weather was closing and and they wanted to get us to the finish before it became too bad.
The old saying save the best till last would not be fitting for this occasion, but for sure it was in many ways the hardest day. We were going over the most technical route of the 7 days with the weather being cold and damp and the fatigue from the 6 days previous this made the technical sections even harder. We had a few sections on steep drops and had to use the cable attached to rock face to get across, medics were on hand at all these sections as well which makes you even more aware.
I found myself nervous going across these sections and could not wait to get lower down the mountains.
Earlier in the stage I had Sam Pantlings words ringing in my ears any issues stop sort them out straight away, ok we were in a line runners in front and behind on my heels taking on a really steep section and narrow, if I stopped everyone would have to wait, typically I needed a pee! I had something in my shoe! And I was hungry, this lasted nearly an hour until I could get off the route and stop, oh the bliss of sorting those three things was immense.
Finally, the route dropped down and became wider and the end was now clearly in sight, the last 3K I upped my effort to catch everyone I could see including another Brit, he became my focus and drive and I got past him with 1 K to go, the finish line!! James Cadge and his Mum who had come out there cheering. It was done! Wet, cold, exhausted and hungry. What an adventure, what a race! Great places, great people amazing views as ever the mountains don’t disappoint.
I want to say a big thank you to Angela Burnikell of Muscle Maters for her help in keeping my legs in good shape while training and then giving great advice to treat my injury during the race.
Matt Hart and the team at Torq Fitness, the fuel that you guys produce is amazing and I am so lucky to be associated to you through my coaching.
Jon Petifor at Gore Apparel for sponsoring James and I with the most amazing kit that did not lets us down once.
Mydleton Major as prime sponsor that James worked hard to secure, thank you for making this event possible for us.
James Cadge for being a great friend, brilliant training and racing partner. If I could have designed my ideal van buddy and run buddy you would have been the outcome, thanks so much.
All my E3C athletes who took time to help keep me on it in the lead up and during the race.
Sam Pantling, man thank you so much for having my back. Your advice via text and even the calls during the race were so spot on, it means more knowing how crazy busy your life is at the moment yet you found time. Cheers buddy.
To my kids who continue to be and always will be my main motivation in all I do, I hope that you see in life you must live and go get your dreams. Love you.
My Mum who has always been there for all my adventures and races, I know sometimes you wonder why but you always support. Love you.
Lily, you are the breath of fresh air in my life and bring me comfort and balance and I am so lucky to have meet you and have you in my life.
To those past away Dad and Grandad. I will strive to be the best I can at every turn and be there for my family. Love to you both.