Last updated: 13-Sep-18
“When you start from such a low base, anything you do is going to help,” said Andy Mouncey as we had our first skype training session in July. “I’m not put off by the fact that you are totally out of shape and say you don’t like running. This is about covering the ground as efficiently as possible.”
I have signed up to run the Everest Trail Race (ETR) in November, which is 160km over 6 days with 15,000m of ascent at altitude. This would be a daunting challenge for me at any time but having let my pendulum swing to the unhealthy writer side of things, it feels Herculean.
I moved to Imlil in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to give myself access to plenty of up and down and have been there now for six weeks.
Initially, I was a bit reluctant to hire a coach as I am such a poor runner – I felt rather embarrassed about it. I equate coaches with elites and not the likes of me, who only has a very few ultras under her belt and does it for the adventure and the opportunity to trot in crazy places rather than for the pure sport.
But, while talking to Steve Diederich who is supporting me on this quest, he asked, “Why on earth wouldn’t you?!” which, on reflection, seemed fair. So, I approached Andy of Doing Big and Scary, who is RunUltra’s chief coach, and asked him to take me on.
Four weeks in, I can honestly say that I am glad I did. To start with, Andy asked me to fill in a questionnaire about where I am at in respect of fitness and running and also what I want to actually achieve.
He then spent at least half an hour going through that with me in our first skype and also asked me lots of questions about my environment and what is possible for me. I really liked the fact that he listened to me and I felt like he really heard me.
It was also incredibly useful for me, as it crystallised the reasons I am doing this and what is at stake for me.
I am sure my reasons will resonate with many of you. I want to challenge myself to do something that is really, really hard (for me) and will require me to spend lots of time working towards it.
I want to cross that finish line and feel that I have put the work in and gained the reward. At stake are my pride and my reputation. I’ve put it out there that I am doing this and now I better damn well do it!
Andy’s premise is that I need two things to get me through this:
- Bombproof legs both for ascent and descent.
- An ability to support uncomfortable breathing over a long period of time.
To that end, he has started me off with a programme of what he calls “chassis building”. This involves 3-4 shortish sessions per day which might include:
- Up to one hour of speed hiking or biking with no load.
- 30 minutes of power hiking up and down a steep incline with weighted bag (20kg).
- At-home gym session of 3-4 exercised for around 20 minutes. The exercises might include a dead lift, stand up, sit down, weighted lunge, etc.
- Mobility work with full body exercises like the worm, squat with arm rotation and Spiderman walks for around 20 minutes.
- Step up with a weighted bag – 7kg on a step that brings your leg to right angles and for 250 – 500 repetitions.
This is my “must-do” stuff which I have on the programme for four days a week. In the remaining three I can “reward” myself by doing longer days out in the mountains.
So, how has it worked out in practice? Well, I didn’t factor in some things at the beginning which has led to adjustments. It has been very, very hot in the mountains so that my terrace is over 50C degrees by 9 am and stays that way till around 6pm.
Also there have been heavy mountain downpours most afternoons, so timing of workouts has been constrained. Additionally, I am alone in this endeavour as I live in a very small, traditional Berber hamlet where the women don’t leave the compound without a full veil, far less get their Lycra on and come out running with me.
I also soon ditched the idea of biking. It was too much hassle getting the bike down to the road along the rocky descent from my house and then pushing it up at the end and I am surrounded by such steep ascents on either side that it was disheartening me.
I have had to find ways to keep my motivation up and so I now go to Marrakech one day a week to train in the gym with a trainer and every weekend I hire a local guide to take me out on some really wild, long trails in the mountains.
This both stretches me and keeps me honest and doing it, as well as making it fun and an experience.
Constantly in my head, though, have been the voices telling me I will never be ready, that I am stupid to take this on, that I am not a runner, that if I am knackered just hiking how am I ever going to run and on and on and on.
But, there have been some real highlights that have already enriched my journey. Early on, I was really stressing about having to go outside my house to use the front step to do my loaded step ups.
As I mentioned, I live in a very traditional place (a Doar), and my sweating it out in leggings in 40+ heat with a weighted sack was going to be about as normal a sight as a Martian landing in Trafalgar square and doing the Hokey Cokey but I girded my loins and got myself out there.
Within two minutes, every child in the Doar had come to ask me what I was doing and when I explained, they all demanded weights and that we do it together. Even my landlord’s mother, who is 90, had a go.
There we were, this motley group of half a dozen Amazigh (Berbers) and me, yelling 1,2,3,4 as we sweated and stepped. At the end, I handed out a celebratory lollipop to all and we sat down in the shade and congratulated ourselves. My heart was warm and not just from the exercise.
Another highlight was persuading Sarah Munday, ETR veteran just successfully run OCC at UTMB this year, to come out and join me for two days in the mountains.
Photo credit: Alice Morrison.
Steve had put us in touch so that I could pick her brains and I had suggested she pop over for a long weekend. We’d got on really well on the phone so I reckoned it would be fun. It was.
I hired Omar, one of my regular guides, and a mule and we set off to climb the peak I can see from my terrace. It turned out to be an epic scramble as we got higher and higher.
At one point, I had dug both my hands firmly into the earth and was pulling myself up a sheer bit of scree and looked back down to see Sarah’s face looking up from vertically below me. We both just started laughing.
By lunch on the first day we had got to within 150m of the summit and were perched at around 3000m when thunder and lightning crashed out and the heavens opened. We huddled under a rock, trying to eat our bread and Laughing Cow cheese before the rain disintegrated it.
In front of us was a black, granite rock face made slick by the storm. Omar had disappeared to have a joint – he likes a smoke but never touches tobacco – and by the time he came back it was an easy decision to continue round the mountain rather than braving the rock.
Later in the evening as we descended we met a shepherd with a brand new-born kid in his arms which he handed over to us to carry on down the mountain. That night, as we ate tagine and watched the sun set over our camp, was a magical one and reminded me why I do want to do this and why I love being part of the ultra running community.
Photo credit: Alice Morrison.
I had another skype call with Andy Mouncey, after his triumph at Lakeland 100, to check on progress.
First of all he asked me to report on how I was doing and then he asked what I was proud of.
I couldn’t think of anything I was proud of as I feel I am so far behind on this, and this is where he was brilliant. He just repeated back to me what I told him I had been doing and it made me realise that I am moving forward and that things are getting better.
“It’s all about progress,” he told me. “You need to be more black and white with yourself. Have I done it? Yes or No. If it is Yes, that is good, if it is No then do it. Don’t listen to the voices in your head. Yes or No.”
With that in my head, I set off to Romania to do a four day biking/hiking trip with Whereabouts Holidays in the Bucegi and Fagaras mountains.
It was self-guided so I could use it for training at the pace I wanted but all the routes/accommodation was planned out – a bit like a race! It was fantastic fun – Romania appears to be Europe’s best kept secret, what a fantastic country! – and also reinforced my feeling of progress.
1000m of ascent felt more like 500m which gave me some hope. Admittedly I will be looking at 3500m ascent on the longest day, but I don’t need to focus on that yet.
Photo credit: Alice Morrison.
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