Fall Thoughts

In March I said I wanted to write more. It’s now the end of September (October by the time this publishes), and this is my first entry since then. I guess life happens, and I didn’t allocate time to write, and ergo, did not write. It’s funny how easy it is to let things slip on the wayside, how we make excuses with our time (and sometimes for legitimate reasons), and just over/under prioritise things in our life. I say this only to recognise and acknowledge where I am, six months later without anything written. Which is ok. I’ve realised how much I enjoy writing, re-igniting the desire to write more. It’s also like any craft, the more you do the better you get. So here I am, back to it.

It is shocking to realise the year 2019 has flown past and we are in the final quarter. I started the year with a forced several months off work (redundancy), which was only the biggest blessing. I’ve had a great year til now, with that trend looking to continue. A lot has changed, and as I have found the last few years, growth and evolution has come hard and fast. Whilst I am still living in London, something that has been building for several years now, is only growing stronger. By that I mean I’ve begun to recognise that my time here is coming to a close. That consciously began in November last year, and has only grown louder and in prominence. How that looks, the timeline for that, and any specifics I am still figuring out. I am slowly getting a clearer vision. This year the process of it all (which has often seemed and felt like little was happening has actually been creating a lot of space for growth and clarity), has seen me find some visible direction. There is still a lot I am working on, but I feel more in control. I owe a lot of that to conversations with some close friends (especially Cassie, Laurel & Amelia), as well as many others who’ve helped me along the way.

Running wise, I’ve had a great year (despite a very recent DNF that I will comment on in more depth later). In April I returned to Cinque Terre in Italy, for the fifth time. Unlike my prior visits, I was finally there to race the Sciacche Trail 47km race. I figured it was finally time to race after supporting and working at the event for prior editions. I know the course almost like a local, and have run certain sections over and over, year after year. It’s a beautiful course; technical, steep, and with a rich history that is so present when you are on those trails. It has a magic to it that makes running and racing such a joy. I started off conservatively with the Americans (Amanda Basham, Zac Marion and Taylor), before just cruising up ahead on the first climb. I then began doing my thing, slowly passing more and more runners. I’d lose some ground on any sustained downhill, but would pass 3x the amount of runners on the up. At points I’d look back and see Amanda in her blazing red Gore kit chasing me down, but despite my best efforts, couldn’t drop her. She ran an amazing race, and is someone I respect the heck out of (and didn’t want chasing me hard all race either because the girl can CLOSE). As the race got to the final 12kms, I knew I could take risks and push harder, as this section felt like home. I knew every inch of that ground. I finished in 7th OA, less than a second behind 6th place, after a final big kick from me (Basham had rounded the corner and whilst I had a decent gap wanted to make sure no one tried to run me down). Second to tenth were very tight and had any updates been in English, I may have ran a little differently to do what I could to run into the top five. It was a great race for me, being the top non – European, with Amanda finishing just behind me with a new Course Record (on the hardest course in five years of races). Not only was I glad to have had a good showing for dear friends and race organisers Christine and Nicola, but It gave me confidence I could bring it on a hard and fast, European ‘shorter’ race.

In May, I raced the Hackney Half (road) on four days notice, running seconds outside my PR in 1:16:35, then winning a trail marathon (44kms) a week later (which was also taken on short notice) in the UK. It wasn’t highly competitive, but was nice to race locally on trails on a beaut weather day with plenty of friends in attendance. Both races I enjoyed a beer within minutes of finishing, which added a lightness to the occasion. In June, I headed to the US to crew and pace Amanda Basham at Western States. I flew into Colorado, and had the best time with my close friends out there (Laurel, Charli and Josh), making my first Colorado trip special. I attended Outdoor Retailer which was just insane, caught up with other people, sampled the food/coffee in and around Golden and then headed to California for the big dance. I had a great week running my favourite parts of the course (including spectacularly eating shit hard on buttery smooth Cal St), plus exploring a little near Tahoe. Western States is incredibly special to me, and I’d find it hard to be anywhere else that time of year. Seeing so many friends out there is just one of my favourite things. I’m so grateful to Elke for hosting me and to everyone else that made me feel like I was at home. I raced the Altra uphill challenge on the Friday, which was a ton of fun (I both raced hard and stopped to take photos several times), before final preparations began for Amanda. Sadly, Amanda fell in the snow early, sustaining an injury that prevented her from continuing after Foresthill. Whilst I was so bummed she DNF’ed (spoiler, she came back with a vengeance and CRUSHED CCC taking 2nd in possibly her best performance yet), I had another friend out there who needed me. Laurel wasn’t having her day, and whilst the final result was getting cutoff at the river (mile 79), It was a true honour, privilege and pleasure to pace her from Foresthill. Seeing a friend struggle in a prolonged dark moment is never fun, especially when it doesn’t result in a finish. Laurel showed true grit and courage when tested, and that will just be one part of her story. DNF’s really sting, as they make one question so much. Having been there several times myself, I know first hand how dark they can be. What I also know is that we intentionally seek to leave comfort, to find those challenges that makes us question everything. To push ourselves far beyond what we and society think we are capable of, and to strip ourselves bare as we seek redemption in the flames of suffering, to be reborn anew, to pull off the superficial layers, and to be left with the purity of the human spirit. By doing that, we inevitably push the point of failure. We seek the hard things and in doing so we don’t always succeed in the short term. In the long term, those micro failures that seem at the time to hold the weight of the world, really are just parts of our greater story. Of our growth, evolution, and progress. It’s not an easy pill to swallow in the moment, but if you stay the course, the reward is always that much sweeter. Leaving Western States was tough, as its such a wonderful celebration and concentration of incredible people and stories. I’ll be back again next year.

Back to London post WS, it was time to prepare for my pending hundred miler. The Whistler Alpine Meadows 100, the inaugural hundred miler at Gary Robbins Coastal Mountain Trail series event. In typical Gary style, this course was a monster. Huge vert (10000m), big exposed climbs, aggressive technical sections, and the largest gaps between aid stations that I’ve ever seen at a race (16-20kms standard for many, with ones exceeding that). Training went well leading up to the race, which was probably my best training block yet. I didn’t race much longer stuff this year, so came into the final preps exceptionally fit, healthy and motivated. 2019 saw my coach add in consistent treadmill sessions to work on getting more vert. Coupled with regular speed sessions and workouts, I was feeling as ready as I could be. WAM terrified me though. It was a absolute beast of a mountain race, and my fear was reasonable. Nothing about the course was easy, and from all reports it was harder than UTMB, more technical, and with significantly less support all around which means you need to be far more self-sufficient. It was nonetheless a challenge I was excited and ready for.

I intentionally planned a big trip to Canada, as I’d not ever been. Canada was a country I’d been dying to visit, especially as I have so many wonderful Canadian friends. It was with great pleasure that I got a great few weeks to explore before I raced. I started in Ontario, where I stayed with my dear friend Cassie (one of my all time favourite people) in Kitchener, about an hour out of Toronto. On landing, I was immediately whisked to her parents house, situated right on Lake Ontario with a stunning city view, about 10kms run along the lake right to the city centre. A prime location which has the feel of a lake house, yet so close to the CBD. I received a huge welcome from her wonderful family, who took great pleasure feeding me and engaging in great conversation. It was a perfect start to my trip, surrounded by great company (parents Doug and Judy, plus sister Courtney and partner Jeff). I hadn’t seen Cassie since Black Canyon in Feb, so it was a rousing start to my trip. The next few days were a mix of exploring Canadian cuisine (Apple fritters, poutine and more), exploring Kitchener, and getting to see some of Cassie’s favourite trails. Cassie is a brilliant human, with such depth of character, talent, wisdom and energy. I love any time we have together. She’s also a talented athlete, although you wouldn’t know it as she is as humble as she is talented. Kitchener and surrounds has a beauty to it, and whilst it isn’t big rugged mountains, the quaint farm life, beautiful trails, and proximity to Toronto give it a country vibe without the feeling of isolation. I was pleasantly surprised, and felt at home there. Cassie is someone who I consider one of my closest friends, so time spent with her, meeting her family, seeing her home and getting a glimpse of her life, was exactly what I needed. I was sad to say goodbye to her, but excited to head to the West Coast.

In BC, I stayed in Squamish, a mecca for the outdoors filled with climbers, runners, alpinists and all manners of outdoorsy folk. It is right in the heart of the wilderness, with incredible trails, lakes, mountains and wildlife all in close proximity, extending as far as one can see. My first night I met my friend Alicia, whom I met via Cassie earlier this year. Alicia is an incredibly talented runner herself, and another of my favourite people to spend time with. She has a wildness to her, a playfulness, but all of that is coupled by a fierce motivation, entrepreneurial flair and a wisdom and intelligence that creates this unique personality that is impossible not to love. She has this curiosity for life, and I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiment that all the things we do, are about the people and the stories, never the outcome (paraphrasing). She was a wonderful host, who not only arranged accommodation for me with a friend, but gave me a huge list of places to eat at and explore. We got to share a run together (with her husband Julien and friend Dave) on some of Squamish’s stunning trails, and then a meal together (Squamish’s best lasagna). Alicia was racing in Golden BC that weekend, so I’m glad I got to catch her when she was in town. Squamish proved a wonderful place to spend time pre race, if not challenging to not go crazy playing in the outdoors.

Friday 10AM, the WAM 100 started. It was a beautiful day to run (we missed some potentially less pleasant weather), despite high humidity. The first 45kms flew by, as I was patient and not pushing hard per my plan. Big climbs, decent run-able sections and some stunning trails and views as we traversed the West side of the Valley. I was deliberately taking it easy, fuelling and not focusing on what was going on ahead of me (being a low key race I didn’t have any beta anyway). The race was pretty exposed for large sections, so aid stations were few and far between. I shared miles primarily with Mariev, a very experienced local runner (and funnily Alicia’s mentor in trail running, who took her out on her first ever run). She knew every inch of the course, which was a big help due to the course maps etc not being entirely accurate. After leaving the 45km aid station (Whistler Athlete Centre of which we would return to at 92 ish kms), it was the beginning of the serious climbing. I was continuing to be patient, and was steadily moving through the field. Mariev and I ran together again (Whilst she had crew I did not so was taking more time at aid stations) as we began our 25km ish climb up and around Whistler, to eventually summit. I forged on ahead at one point, and as the darkness set, she would pass me again when night was upon us and I was having a rougher patch mentally. I’d chase her all the way up to Whistler, where we topped out at the 79km aid station. I took my time there, hanging out with the Aussies manning the aid stations (inc some Perth boys), downed a ton of broth, keeping my promise to be patient. I then left and began descending what can only be described as the most ridiculously technical , heinous section I’ve ever seen.

Khyger Pass as it is called, I found out later was a derelict mountain bike trail, that Gary and his team had essentially reclaimed. It was incredibly steep, sketchy and technical (aka the thing I am weakest at going downhill). Big drops that required ropes, random sections that I had no clue how anyone could move fast over, and overall a feeling like going up would be faster than going down. I’d left Whistler just before midnight, so this was just a total monster. Post race, I’d learn that very experienced runners (who have done races like HURT, Hardrock, UTMB, TDS etc) all agreed that it was one of the most ridiculous descents they had ever seen. It took some time, and as I got lower, I saw runners beginning what was the out and back to return to Whistler the same way we are going down. By the count, I was hovering around the top 15, and as I’d let a few people pass me on the way down, meant I’d gotten to Whistler around the top 10. The first beta I’d had all day. Eventually that descent became run-able, and I got back to Whistler Athlete Centre for my second time. I took a bit of time to re-group and use my drop bags to restock, knowing after the Whistler ascent, there was a very long stretch before any aid. I left the aid station, ready to crack on and grind out the final hours of the night.

It was about 2AM by that time, so pitch black. I was tired, as often happens in night sections of long ultras. As I got on the trail and shoved my jacket back in my pack, I kept following the pink ribbons as we had been doing all day (per race instructions, if you are seeing pink ribbons you are going the right way). Unbeknownst to me, I had turned off onto the trail I had come own at 45kms (and where 100km runners would run later that day). The wrong direction, but being night and marked, I kept cracking on. I did feel it wasn’t the same way I had just come down, and was a little disturbed not to be seeing runners descending from their first Whistler pass. About 5kms in, I knew I was in trouble, seeing a trail marker for a lake I remember passing very early on in the race, Crater Lake. After some explosive F- Bombs, dismay and disbelief, I began the 5kms down back to Whistler Athlete Centre. 102kms run, still at the 92km aid station. I was done. I called it there, and whilst the volunteers begged me to sit down and just take some time to reconsider, my mind was made up. I sat down and pretended to think it over, but mentally I was spent. I knew what had happened, and it was just unfortunate the timing of me putting my jacket in my pack + my head down & not on a swivel led me to missing the trail I should have followed. Thus retracing my steps from much earlier. Normally in a race you lose markers quickly and realise any mistakes, but alas it was a unique situation and with the dark, a mistake was made. I take full responsibility, as it was well marked. Gary Robbins is known for having the best marked courses in ultra-running. His courses (including WAM) have better markings than the track in Doha where the World Athletic Championships are currently being held. Seriously! It was an unfortunate situation, with 10kms extra on my legs and the additional mental strain. I’d blown through extra nutrition, and whilst I could have probably scrounged more together, foreign nutrition in a race which had extremely long sections (longer than any race I’ve ever seen), left far less margin for error and safety. I knew how much hard running was left, so I strategically withdrew. I DNF’ed.

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By the time I got back to where I was staying, It was early Saturday morning. I showered and had a nap, before waking anew. My body felt fantastic, almost as if I hadn’t run at all. Mentally, there was zero regrets about the drop. I had intended to finish, I went off course in a unusual situation that normally would have been identified much sooner. I chose to save my body and mind the potential risk of burying myself, at the cost of a finish. I know I gained a huge amount from the experience, so it felt like a bunch of small wins even if the final win (a finish) didn’t come to fruition. I confidently can say I raced strategically, fuelled well, managed the lower patches overnight, and mentally never wavered in my desire to finish. I’d prepared for almost every eventuality (including a freaking bear attack), and a rare and unfortunate circumstance happened. This happens when we push ourselves. Lessons like these sit with us, and it is only a true failure if we fail to learn and evolve. I’m brand new to this sport, especially to 100 mile races, and they are HARD. This particular 100 miler is by far one of the toughest in the world. I’m constantly growing and becoming a better runner, and this experience only added to that. I’ve a relentless desire to improve and to test myself, and have plenty of time to do just that. Not finishing stings, but it is never just about a finish line. That is the smallest part of why I do this. I got to spend Saturday evening drinking beer and hanging out with Ryan, Karine and the kids (who were my gracious and delightful hosts in Squmaish), eat home made pizza, and even see a local bear roaming the streets (known to frequent the neighbourhood to eat fruit from trees and dig into bins). In some peoples opinion, seeing a bear was the real victory this trip, and I don’t disagree. Whilst fleeting, it was pretty sweet. Sunday I went hiking, feeling energised and stoked to spend my final day outside. I got a true PNW (Pacific North West) adventure, beautiful greens, foggy views, and light rain. Then an early birthday celebration for Ryan, and a great way to end my final night in Canada. As I departed Monday, I met Sam (a new friend and Squamish local who has the most ridiculously amazing instagram) at my favourite coffee shop (Shoutout Caffe Garibaldi for looking after me all week) to hear about her successful debut ultra (WAM 50km), before heading off. I managed to squeeze one final tourist stop into the trip, visiting the beautiful Deep Cove, a Cassie recommendation (along with the famous Honey’s bakery for doughnuts).

I am now back in London, feeling a little displaced and greatly missing certain people, and the proximity to the outdoors. The lifestyle in both parts of Canada I visited is far more aligned with where I want to be, a feeling that has been building since 2016 when I visited Flagstaff (where Alicia and Chris Vargo warned me people stop by and never leave). I’ve shared openly that I want to create a life somewhere different, somewhere where it isn’t as busy, isn’t as intense, and is more aligned with the lifestyle I want. Close to nature, ideally big mountains. I miss the vivid stars (I still remember being a teenager and ‘Uncle Rick’, an Australian SAS Major teaching me how to navigate with the stars). I miss the crazy colours in the sky. I miss big storms. I miss raw and unfiltered nature. It isn’t the same in London, and even in the UK, I’ve not seen skies like I have in Australia, Europe or N America. It’s a work in progress, and the last few months I’ve begun taking steps for a career change that will benefit me as I look to make that desire a reality (plus picked up a freelance gig working with one of my favourite humans on a podcast). It will take some more work, more figuring out, and at some point, execution. It’s something I think about every hour of every day, whilst every trip back London feels less and less like home. That being true, I am still here and my race mantra ‘ Be where your feet are’ applies, so I remain conscious to be present as whatever is next is in the future, and it would be a darn shame to miss the present and all the wonderful things that are in the here and now, whilst I am still in London.

Running wise, as I continue to feel like I hadn’t raced at all, I’ve decided to double tap my fitness and run Frankfurt Marathon in a few weeks (last weekend of October). A quick turnaround, to use the fitness I feel I’ve still got in me. Mentally, I’m not done for the year, and a fast road marathon seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to close out the year on a high. I have some goals, but at the end of the day I’ll be happy to just leave it all out there. I’ve not been excited to run a road marathon for a while, so figured whilst the desire is there and I’ve enough fitness and time to put some specific work in, I’ll take the shot. I think the idea of a full road marathon buildup and training cycle really disinterests me, so a short and sweet, hard and fast few weeks will do. I’ve big goals for 2020 and beyond, and look forward to the adventures that will come, and most importantly, the people I will spend time with along the way.

As always I owe a lot of people my gratitude and thanks.

To Cassie: You are someone I consider one of my closest friends. We have had some of the most insightful, entertaining, deep and beautiful conversations (which are only magnified in person). You have such a wise outlook on life, and knowing your story, I am nothing but impressed with everything you do and the grace you do it with. I value your friendship immensely, and it was such a joy to spend time with you in your part of Canada, meet your family, friends and just see how you light up and inspire so many people around you. Thank you for being the best host. I wanted you to give me my first experience in Canada and you didn’t disappoint. I look forward to many more years of friendship, adventures and delightful conversations spanning every topic (and in a variety of different places). Thank you for being you, continuing to inspire me, and provoke thought in how I approach my life. Thank you for your honesty in sharing your life with me and allowing me to share mine with you.

To Alicia Woodside: You’re such a joy to be around, and I love your curiosity for life. You’re so talented in so many ways, and your entrepreneurial flare is marvellous to behold. You took such pride in being my ‘West Coast travel consultant’ and I can’t thank you enough for putting me in touch with Karine. It was so fun hanging out with you, and I greatly appreciate all the waffles you gave me, on my one time (but hopefully multi time) waffle sponsorship. Like Cassie, the way you look and engage with the world is so beautiful, and a source of inspiration for me. Lastly, you gave me the BIGGEST compliment in the car ride back from the Salomon event. It was raw and genuine, and meant the world to me, so thank you. More adventures soon please.

To Karine and Ryan (and Sacha and Louis): Thank you for being the most wonderful hosts. I loved staying with you, hearing about your individual stories and seeing the craziness that two young boys bring to a household. You made me feel at home, and that is something I will always be grateful for.

Alicia Vargo (Coach): Thank you for all your support. You’re the best coach around, plus a great friend and mentor. You have so much wisdom, and I know that you will always make sure I’m ready for whatever challenge I undertake. We’ve got plenty more in the future, of which I look forward to it all. Thanks for believing in me, pushing me, nurturing me, and reminding me of the important things in life. Much love to Chris, Skylar and yourself

Becs (aka Balanced Osteo): Taking me on as a sponsored athlete this year has meant I can see you regularly without having to worry about the finer details. It has made such a huge difference, and I’ve had a great year, injury free, much of which I owe to you keeping me healthy month to month as I continue to push myself. Your elbows are brutal, but they serve their purpose. Thank you (and please don’t be mean next week when I come in).

WAM Race Gear

Shoes: Altra Lone Peak

Socks: Drymax (single pair)

Pack: Ultimate Direction Halo Vest

Squirrels Nut Butter (used it more for my lips/nose than regular chafing)

Nutrition: Teffles Waffles pre race (thanks Alicia W), Gu all day (Summit Tea roctane drink, Gu chews, Gu Stroopwaffles, Gels). Plus cold brew coffee (Station Cold brew), crap tons of broth and coke.

 


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