2016 has been a huge year both globally and personally. This time last year I was in the midst of 100 mile weeks, preparing for a big start to 2016, February’s Tarawera Ultra Marathon (100km) in New Zealand. This would be my debut 100km, and 2nd ever ultra (disregarding Race to the Stones in 2015 for which I ran the entire race pacing a friend). I made it very clear that I planned to go out hard at Tarawera and see how competitive I could be with the best runners in the world. I was confident, and at the same time, had no idea at all how I would fare racing elite runners with big racing credentials and more wins and records than I had races. With a deep field of runners, on a beautiful course, I started my 2016 with a bang. My debut 100km also served as my first race on the Ultra Trail World Tour, against some of the worlds best (Jonas Budd, Mike Wardian, Jason Schlarb, Ryan Sandes to name a few). With the help of my amazing crew (Maggie, Sophie and my mum and step-dad), I ran to a 19th overall finish, and proved to myself that I could race towards the front end of an elite level ultra. It was a phenomenal experience and I loved exploring New Zealand, and learnt so much about myself and my capabilities during that race. I was thrilled with a top 20 finish, and knew that I had a lot to work on moving forward. I left New Zealand with a happy heart, ever so motivated for the adventures that 2016 would bring.
My recovery post Tarawera left me humbled, as factors I didn’t consider (and really respect) left me feeling run down and adding weeks onto the timeline before I felt 100% again. I had zero injuries or issues post-race, but had scheduled two days worth of travel back to London barely a day after I raced. If I was racing in Europe, that wouldn’t have been a problem. Upwards of 30 hours travelling and airport stopovers, meant I was severely restricted with the amounts and quality of food I could eat, and was unable to rest my body as I would have liked (or more importantly, as it needed). Eating sub-standard airport food, airplane food and in significantly smaller quantities to what my body needed, drastically affected my recovery to the point that a run two weeks later left me feeling drained and depleted, despite running what would normally be slower than my easy pace. Lack of rest, and lack of adequate post-race nutrition had my endocrine system all over the place, and my body struggling to get back to normal. I dialled my mileage back significantly, and intentionally chilled, mixing in a lot of walking, resting and yoga (and lots and lots of eating). I went to the Sciacche Trail Ultra in March and did not race, instead using that time to gauge how my body was feeling, whilst supporting my crew out there racing. I got a lot of vert on my legs (and a nickname ‘The Vert’ from Becs Gentry’s mum), and loved just running around that incredible part of the world that is Cinque Terre. I was back in optimum condition, lesson learnt. I got some great runs in, and enjoyed supporting my friends who were out there racing. As a bonus, I finally met Sally McRae in person. My first ever exposure to ultra-running was through a video showing Sally’s successful attempt at a top ten finish at the 2014 Western States 100. That video changed my life, and being a Nike Trail Team Athlete, Sally was the first ultra-runner I ever heard of, and my de-facto mentor. Over the last year we had spoken and gotten to know each other to (as much as you can without meeting in person) and it was such an honour to cheer for her, high five her as she raced, and then spend time talking to her the days after. I now call Sally a friend, and she is still someone I look up to and hold in the highest of esteem. She is one of the nicest humans, and an athlete who I still consider a mentor.
In May I was back to racing, what would be my toughest test to date. Transvulcania (literally translated to ‘across volcano’), 73kms, 8000m elevation and probably one of the most technical ultras in the world. It’s a favourite on the Sky-running World Series calendar, and with a notorious (horrific) descent that scares the life out of elite runners. I had heard about Transvulcania from various elite interviews, as it was known to be one of the most competitive races at that time of the year, with a stunning yet unforgiving course. Nothing like the profile of Tarawera, which was some rolling hills at best in comparison. The final descent dropped from 2500m down to sea level, in ten miles of the most brutal, technical descending (after having 50kms of aggressive climbing on your legs). Once again, whilst I wanted to race and be competitive, my doubts of how living and training in London would translate to a serious sky running race, left me with no idea of how I would go. Turns out, I thrived. 600+ at the 7km mark, I hunted people down all day and finished in 110th (out of circa 1800 starters). Despite the brutality of the race, I ran a sub ten hour time, and immediately after I crossed the line, said I would be back next year. I am confirmed to return in 2017, to improve my time and position on the course. The best thing about Transvulcania, was that I got to meet two more incredible athletes, Alicia Shay (now Alicia Vargo) and Chris Vargo, both Nike Elite Trail Team. Chris and Alicia were the second and third ultra runners I had ever heard of, and who progress I had followed from the beginning. I consider them amongst those I called my early mentors. One interview with Chris actually changed how I approached hills and ‘climbs’, and gave me dramatically improved results across my running back in 2014. I had the highest amount of respect for them both, and shortly after Transvulcania, Alicia officially became my coach. The best decision I ever made, as she is one of the most qualified coaches out there and one of the best runners in the world.
Post Transvulcania I managed my recovery well, and heading into June excited to race the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. Starting and finishing in Cortina, it was by far the longest and hardest race I would do. 119kms circumnavigating the gorgeous Italian Dolomites, with 6000m of elevation. Big, technical mountain racing. It also had an incredibly deep field of runners which included one of my favourites, Rory Bosio (2014 winner and CR holder of UTMB). Lavaredo was a monster, starting at night and having quite large gaps between aid stations. A last minute emergency had meant I did not have any crew, and for whatever reason, I struggled mentally for majority of the race. 18 hours of running had me finish outside the top 100 (which I consider a decent performance), and despite the result, I really felt like I ran significantly short of my potential. I nearly quit a few times, and you know its going to be a long race when you start to wonder if falling off the cliff is a good enough excuse to stop. Not once had I ever experienced mental issues like that, and previously had never considered dropping in a race, which was a big shock. All of this turned into a humbling and revealing learning experience. That aside, I took a lot of positives away from that race. Physically I had no issues with the 120kms distance, especially on such unforgiving mountain terrain. I pushed hard up the climbs, managed the descents (technical descents are my weakest), dealt well with the extreme weather conditions and my body was strong for the entire race. 24 hours later I was walking around fine, and I ran three days later quite comfortably. It was just my mind that had struggled, and I took great comfort in my ability to suffer, and show resilience and fight in the face of mental and emotional adversity. Despite having every reason not to finish, I still made it happen. The best part about this race was the Gelato milkshakes I demolished in Venice over the preceding few days before I flew back to London. I highly recommend these being a staple in everyone’s recovery diet.
A few weeks later, I had a quick week in Amsterdam for a Nike conference which was a ton of fun. I got to run and engage with Nike Pacers and Coaches from all over Europe, before flying back to London for a few days before heading to Switzerland to race the Eiger Trail 51km. This time, I had friends join me, as Amelia (a training partner and good friend) was running the 51km in a mixed pair with me. The conditions of the pairing were you had to run the entire race together. Whilst she had run ultras before, it was her first mountain race. A big one, as the Eiger is no joke. Stunning weather heralded the day and we had a really enjoyable race. We finished 13th overall in the pairs, and Amelia whilst challenged, had a fantastic race. She showed a ton of grit after her IT Band flared up painfully on one of the last descents, which is a runners worst nightmare. I loved running and enjoying the mountain air, and was really happy that whatever demons had haunted me a few weeks back in Italy, were nowhere to be seen. Whilst an easier pace for me in this event, I still was challenged by some of the mountain conditions, and gained a huge amount of experience which I will take with me for the future (including running on heavy snow and descending on icy single track). The Eiger was a beautiful race, and I had a blast sharing that experience with Amelia. That was the end of my ‘race season’ for 2016, although I decided to do the Amsterdam marathon in October for something different and as a honest fitness test after my big 2016 season. Coach had me focusing on recovery post Eiger, and whilst we did some speed work tailored towards the marathon, a bigger focus was on recovery from my 2016 racing and just looking at setting the foundation for 2017. I wanted to run the marathon as a fitness test, and to see if what I thought I could run was actually true. I slammed my pinky toe in a door two weeks out, fracturing the toe and forcing a week off running. It wouldn’t matter anyway, as the work had been done and my fitness level was high, and after some physio magic with taping and some basic trigger point therapy, I had no pain when I ran. I toed the line at Amsterdam and ran incredibly consistently to a 2:54 finish. A shade slower than I wanted but a six minute PR and out of the three marathons I’ve run, it was by far the best. My final half splits were within a few seconds of each other, so whilst I wanted to run faster, the data (plus how I felt running) showed a tremendous fitness level and deep foundation that is going to translate to some serious running in my 2017 ultras.
I finished off the year in the United States, crewing and pacing Maggie (my sole Tarawera pacer) in her debut 100 miler, the Javelina Jundred. I then spent a week up in Flagstaff, with Chris and Alicia (Chris Vargo and Alicia aka coach) training and exploring beautiful Northern Arizona. I fell in love with Flag, and can’t wait to return. I ran in Sedona, up Mt Humphrey to the peak, and did a monster run in the Grand Canyon. The sheer beauty of Northern Arizona is mind blowing, and I just can’t wait to get out there again. Additionally, I got to spend some quality time with Alicia and Chris, who have played a huge role in my running and ultra career. Both just incredible people, and I am honoured to have had that time with them.
It has without a doubt been a phenomenal year. This time last year I was deep into my preparations for my debut elite level race, uncertain about how 2016 would pan out. I can say with absolute certainty that it has far exceeded everything I thought possible in the realm of running. I have done things I thought impossible and re-framed my expectations so many times I have lost count. The possibilities and opportunities keep growing and I am so very thankful for all of the brands and people that have supported me. I am truly thankful for the opportunities to travel and explore the world on my two legs, and for the friendships, memories and experiences that have come from these.
2017 is looking to be bigger and better, and I am so excited to see how the year pans out. This is how it is looking thus far.
May 2017 – Transvulcania
June 2017 – Western States 100. My DREAM race and the first ultra I had ever heard off. I said in 2014 that I would be racing Western in 2017, and despite the vastly low odds, it is happening.
August 2017 – CCC (ballot pending)
I am looking at a few other big races too, but will wait to see how the CCC ballot pans out first before committing.
Finally some quick points to end on.
Countries raced in: 5 (across 3 continents)
Favourite race: Transvulcania
Best Performance: Tarawera
Toughest Race: Lavaredo
Favourite Run: Humphrey’s Peak with Alicia (2700m topping out at 3700m or 13,000ft, my first experience at big elevation)
Best Run: Grand Canyon. A surreal experience and an immense run. Climbing back out of the Canyon is something else, and I don’t think anyone will ever get used to how phenomenal that place is
Total kms run (Year to date Strava): 2,723.4kms (219 total recorded runs)
Total Elevation (YTD Strava): 62,795m
Times I busted my knees open in a race: 3 (out of 5)
Toenails Lost: 1 (and only ever thus far)
Weeks of no running: 0 (6 days was the longest stretch without running, and that was when I broke my toe)
Biggest training week: 120 miles
Favourite Shoes of 2016: Nike Kiger 3
Lastly, a big thank you to the following people and brands that have supported me in some shape or form.
Nike (Nike London specifically): I love being a Nike Pacer and whilst the support from the brand is huge, it’s the community that really keeps me there. Coaches, pacers and runners, you are all brilliant and whilst running is an individual pursuit, there is a huge community aspect to it which is immeasurable. I look forward to what 2017 has in store for the global (and local) NRC community.
Tailwind (Tailwind UK): I have been using Tailwind for as long as I have been doing ultras. Liquid nutrition that works perfectly as I push hard over the ultra distance, and has not let my down once. Since February, Tailwind UK have partnered with me to support my racing.Mike and Andy, you have been absolutely awesome to me this year. You keep my supplied with product, and go to great lengths to ensure I am totally looked after for each race. I love the product and it has performed flawlessly throughout a bunch of tough ultras this year. In times I’ve doubted if I could go on, Tailwind has been the steady product I always rely on. Green Tea is by far the best flavour!
Alicia Vargo (nee Shay) aka Coach: What can I say. You’re the kindest and most amazing person, and THE best coach in the game. End of story. I can’t wait to take on 2017 and beyond with you. Thank you for patience, kindness, support, belief and everything in between. You are one of the first elite runners I followed and you have played such a huge part of my ultra running career, and will continue to do so for a long time. I loved our time together in Flag, and look forward to many more adventures.
Sally McRae aka Yellowrunner: I had never even heard of ultra running until I saw that one Youtube video about your 2014 Western States journey. From 2014 we have spoken a lot and you have always been kind and gone out of your way to help me. I finally got to meet you in person and since then you have continued to inspire in your unique ways, and have remained someone I respect and learn from (professionally and personally). Thank you for all your kind words and your genuine support of my journey, especially my upcoming Western States journey.
Maggie and Sophie: For embarking on the big one with me at the start of the year. Having you both there meant the world and it set the scene for everything else that happened this year. Thank you for pushing me and believing in me well before this time last year, when we started planning Tarawera. It was such an awesome trip, and I am glad we shared it together.
Rebecca Root (aka Balanced Osteopathy): You are always in disconcerted awe of what I do to my body and yet always ensure that any niggle goes away. I’ve never been more comfortable and trusting when getting your assessment of how my body is performing. Thank you for all your amazing help.
Helen Russell-Clarke & Evie Adams (Primarily at Yogahaven): I honestly credit yoga to being a critical part of my successes this year. The physical benefits have been huge and you both are great at challenging me and encouraging me every class. The direct translation to mountain running is huge across many levels and you both have brought the best out of me. I can’t thank you enough. Helen, I love our Sunday crew and it has become such a positive way to end the week. You both are such amazing humans and I am glad to call you friends as well as teachers. I look forward to more inversions, Thai food and growth in 2017.
Westlab Salts (and Nicole especially): For asking me to be a brand ambassador and making sure I am looked after with all the Himalayan and Dead Sea bath salts I could need. The mental and cathartic benefits are just as important as any physical benefits, and I greatly appreciate the support in my training and wellness.
Tribe: For keeping me filled with all your great bars year round. Travelling and racing around the world, I always have a healthy stock of bars in my luggage to keep me fed and ticking over in between adventures or getting to and from. They’ve been a lifesaver more than once where the inevitable delays of travel have left me stuck somewhere without access to anything decent to eat.
Lastly, to all my amazing training partners, friends and supporters. Whether it was a single run, multiple runs, meeting me for coffee or food post-run, it all adds up. Particularly to Giuliana Coli, you legend of a best friend. I think we have consumed as many coffees as miles run, and eaten as many kilograms of Parmesan cheese (with wine). I look forward to having you as part of my Western States Crew. To Becs and Chris Peck, Bec Watson, Tara, Sophie, Maggie, Cat Simpson, Amelia, Laura Murray and Steph Kitchen, you have been regular training partners too, but there are plenty more. To the NRC runners who come week in week out and provide just as much inspiration for how you all achieve your individual goals, thank you. To the regular yogis I see in class, to my friends around the world sharing their running and fitness successes and keeping me honest as well. To all my not so serious running friends for your understanding in why I do what I do, I appreciate it. Thank you to anyone that has been missed. It has been a ridiculously incredible year and there are so many people who have played their part. Thank you!
Finally, thank you to those that made it this far. It’s been an honour to share my year with you.
See you in 2017