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I sat, eating delicious sugary sweets and drinking slightly too warm Coca Cola as the last shaft of light dropped away from northern Spain. I tried my Petzl one final time in the hope that it could power me round the final 32km.

But it was dead.

I’d prepared so hard to face down the UTBCN but I’d neglected something very important and yet based on my previous experience, superfluous – a second powerful head torch.

As I prepare to return to mountainous terrain with climbs in excess of 1,000 metres and a total elevation of more than 7,000 metres I need to ensure my preparation is more meticulous than ever.

(This was written prior to MIUT and my result there. A report of my experience will follow in the coming weeks once I’ve properly processed the event).

Mental, Physical, Technical Preparedness. I’ve spent much of the last year taking time to think about what I want from my running and as a consequence have changed so many things and while there have been a series of hiccups along the way I’m generally happy with how it’s all panning out


Physical. 
In physical terms I’m faster than I have been for years, I’m sub20 at 5km again and on the right (downhill) course I’m closing in on the low 40s for a 10km. My endurance is better too with 60-70 mile running weeks more achievable than ever and 15 mile hilly buggy runs are a regular occurrence and have been helping prepare for elevation efforts. I’ve been taking my body more seriously too, dropping a few kilograms in weight and not ignoring injuries and all of the above is paying dividends.

However, it’s not all positive, several years of under training, over racing and ignoring injury have left me with scars that my body is unlikely ever to recover from. And so I’ve gone from top 25% of the field runner to a mid/back of the pack runner and in the races I’m now committed to I’m happy just to be able to go to them because I’m a novice and still learning. 

When I go and stand on the start line of the MIUT I know that I’m not one of the mountain goats or one of the winners and that I’m there for the experience (and hopefully a finish) but I know that I’m headed there in better physical shape than say, six months ago, when I took on Haria Extreme.

If you can learn anything from my experiences I hope it’s that you need to develop – give yourself the time to rest, recuperate, train and absorb information from all available sources. This will improve your competitiveness and physicality as you approach those races you’ve always dreamed of facing.

Mental. I was stood at the base of Como Lumpido in Lanzarote with a difficult ascent ahead of me – some runners were coming down the climb having decided that this wasn’t for them.

There was no doubt I was going slowly but having only just returned from injury this race was going to be a test and this climb was a bit of a shit. When I reached the top I looked out into the distance and stood for a moment to grab a photograph or two and heard myself cry out ‘woohoo’. 

All you need is… I hadn’t felt like this since the Skye Trail Ultra six months earlier when I’d nearly shat myself coming down one of the very steep sections. This hilly running sent goosebumps running up my arms and shivers down my spine

I was in love.

For the next 25km of Haria Extreme I had my foot to the floor such was my joy and while there are circumstances that stopped me continuing at around 80km I came away from Lanzarote knowing I had so much more to give.

Dealing with the downs? I’ve often suffered with post race blues and an inability to draw the positives from the racing I’ve done, instead focusing on where it’s gone wrong and how I MUST improve but after Haria I was sure that my decision was the right one and I felt mentally positive about my failure.

However, in the fiasco of my Barcelona failure I’ve been much less positive and actually this has affected to some degree my preparation for Madeira. Having accepted I needed to give myself a bit of a kicking I’m relatively back on track and go to the Portuguese island clinging on to positive thoughts. 

Don’t say ‘edge’. My key concern though isn’t my occasionally negative feelings about ability, no.

My key concern is that I’m scared witless of heights and having viewed many YouTube clips, instagram feeds and twitter timelines I can assure both you reader and myself that the elevation, the climbs and the sheer drops are something I’m terrified of.

I can’t imagine taking these sections with anything other than an arse quivering fear and no experience is making me feel better about this. At Skye there was hard elevation and cliff edges to negotiate as there were  at the CCC, SainteLyon, Barcelona and Lanzarote but this is a whole new level.

I’ve worked hard to focus on the running so that I don’t look down too often and I’ve faced numerous long dangerous hikes over the last couple of years to get me prepared for this – I feel I should no longer be worried, but I am.

I’m advised that a healthy fear of these sections is sensible and respectful and while I know that’s true I wonder how I’m feel when I’m faced with them in the dead of night.

Why do I worry about ultras abroad so much? It’s true that I go to these foreign ‘A’ races and worry about them much more than I do say something like the TP100 or the Ridgeway. 

I’m convinced that some of the pressure I have been exerting on myself has been setting me up for failure. So, kit issues, physical condition, training, having family around, not having family around, lack of suitable locally sourced nutrition and foreign languages all contribute enormously to my stress levels that blow tall and mighty.

It’s a strange set of circumstances that probably come mostly from simply being out of my comfort zone.

By golly Holmes! To aid in the resolution of this I’ve taken some very simple steps a) pack early b) lists c) anything missing can usually be sourced locally and finally d) don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m not going to run it, I’m undertrained/injured/whatever’.

This approach has served me quite well at Haria and the UTBCN where both my failures to finish were because of circumstances outside of the norm. I’m hoping that with the two factors that blighted these events no longer being an issue (fingers crossed) and despite the harshness of the course, I can complete MIUT.

I’ve come a long way in my running preparation, especially the mental side of it and although it’s far from perfect – it’s improving.

I have to understand that should I ever want to reach the final race of my running career though I’ll need to develop a still greater tenacity to post race blues and I’ll need to improve my mental agility regarding perceived failure.

However, my love of the mountains and the peace I find in them make racing there so alluring that my deficiencies in mental strength can be overlooked enough to commit to an increasing number of elevation stacked races.

Technically. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – I wish this were a true statement but I’m living proof that failing to prepare doesn’t prepare you to fail, however, the success you achieve is unlikely to be as great as you would hope for.

The above statement is not an excuse for my often woeful lack of preparedness but a statement of fact.

However, when you start preparing to run on the trails, going up hills and climbing mountainous regions, then you suddenly find that the better your running technique, your pre-race research and understanding of your equipment is then the better time you’ll have and the better you’ll perform.

But I adore throwing my love spuds on the fire! I’ve rocked up to a few races with ill fitting shoes, not taking into account the days conditions, no idea of the route, no idea the elevation and barely any idea what race I’m in. It will come as no surprise to runners that these are the events were I have mostly performed badly. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the races that could have gone so much better had I prepared in a more fitting manner.

I finally began preparing better for races at the SainteLyon 2015 because I was going to France alone, there would be no rescue, no backup, it was a race in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.

So I prepared a little like this 

  • Researched previous years events on social media and running websites
  • Used only the local (French) language site as this was more up-to-date than the English language version
  • Got my medical certificate done as early as possible 
  • Booked flights and accommodation early
  • Got to know the local public transport network before I arrived
  • Brushed up on my French
  • Printed maps
  • Printed race documents
  • Got happy with race kit options before leaving the UK, avoided last minute purchases, but…
  • Knew where a local sports shop was for emergency race purchases
  • Got to bib collection early
  • Rested pre-race for the midnight start
  • Big poo pre-race
  • Packed kit for an ultra with no backup
  • Knew my route back to my accommodation 

I had with me for the SainteLyon options for clothing but my race kit (vest, nutrition, head torch, waterproof, etc) were all decided long before the race started and this helped me to settle down, not worry so much and have the best race experience I’ve ever had. The SainteLyon should be my model for how to prepare for a race.

Subsequently I’ve tried to replicate the process and it’s mostly gone okay but there is always the potential for problems but you learn to adapt. I do the ‘headless chicken’ routine a lot less than I used to.

The CCC. For example in the run up to the CCC we were advised that temperatures meant we should be carrying significant amounts of extra fluid, my response to this was to find a matching race belt to my bag with a 500ml bottle – but it had to be matching (my need for order overtaking my need to have a pleasant holiday in Chamonix). To say I was a bear with a sore head for most of this trip is an understatement, but it was all ridiculous race related pressure that I was heaping upon myself. 

The resolution is that now I carry a spare 350ml soft bottle as an addition to my other hydration options and on a race day I choose the most appropriate ones depending on weather conditions.

Bingo.

Preparation of the organisational and technical elements of racing have helped me very much and contributed significantly to finishes at Amersham, Green Man, Skye and the Vanguard Way and without being prepared I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did at Haria and Barcelona but it’s not the be all and end all.

Preparation, I’ve discovered, is not the key to finishing but it is the key to starting successfully and that in my opinion is half the battle.

So whether you’re a first timer or a bit of an old salty seadog like me, there will always be things that you can do to reduce anxiety and build confidence.

Facing MIUT. If I had to place in order how I value the three aspects of my running preparation I’d say that Mental is the most important followed by Technical/Organisation with my Physical readiness the least important. Ultimately if my headspace is fucked I’m not getting to the start line, I’d just stay in bed on race morning. If my kit, organisation or transport to the start line is wrong then my stress levels go up which affect my mental attitude and we have a cumulative nightmare. However, if my body is a bit worse for wear, if I haven’t slept properly, if all my hypochondria rears it ugly head I’ll still start and mostly I’ll put up with it (unless it’s serious).

So when I go to Madeira and the midnight start in Porto Moniz I’m just going to take it easy because I have prepared properly, I have tested all my kit and I am trying to stay positive, albeit a nervous positive. Finish or fail it matters not, I just know I’d rather be challenging myself at MIUT this weekend rather than something I know I can do.


It was January and I’d just learned that there was no space at the Pilgrim Challenge, I was a little annoyed at myself for not having booked in earlier but hey-ho. I therefore did what I always do and looked on the ahotu website for race listings and there right in front of me was the UTBCN. Interestingly I knew that Lynne, Anna and Nia) family of the GingaNinja were soon to be back full time in Barcelona and so I suggested we go see them at the same time as me taking part in what looked like a pretty tough ultra marathon. 

As I was paying for flights the GN agreed and our hosts confirmed that it would be okay to crash out at their place for a few days and visit.

I entered and booked flights within minutes of confirmation that I had all the required green lights.


It seemed then like no time at all until I was stood at the back of the start line for the UTBCN with no expectations other than to start. 

Although my training had been going reasonably well I really hadn’t looked at the fine print for this race and only noticed how up and down it all was in the days leading up to the event. However, as I put myself up for harder and harder races this felt like a good starting point for the real ultra season opener.

I managed to pass kit check by the skin of my teeth as my brand new Petzl Actik failed literally moments before the start line (more on that later) but I had both a spare light (low-lumens) and extra batteries. I dipped into the starting area and looked ahead to the large inflatable and the hundreds of bronzed runners ahead of me. At this moment I felt very out of place with my milky white skin and too many mars bars physique but it was too late to think about this as the countdown roared into life and we were sent on our way from Begues to …well Begues.

And as we left this small town just outside Barcelona I felt no fear, the rainstorm the previous night had abated (annoying as I’d reworked my kit for wet and cold weather) and the race felt like home and I knew that once I reached the trail this was set to be a bone rattling humdinger of a race.


From the off it was uphill, downhill but sadly nothing in her lady’s chamber! The UTBCN felt like there were no flat sections, you were either going up or you were going down and that was were the fun was to be had.

Over the 100km course there was nearly 5000 metres of upward elevation and it felt like it! I’d thought that my experience at Harris Extreme would adequately prepare me for this but it was a very different beast. 


The nice thing about the route was that the elevation came via a huge variety of surfaces, there was mud, gravel trail, technical rocky trail, great big wet sections for that full foot dunking and even some tarmac (for those who like it simple). And each surface type tested you in new and often unexpected ways.

Much like the variable surfaces each of the climbs brought with it a unique view, a need to adapt your running style and a reminder to keep your wits about you. No two uphills were the same and no two downhills were either. This was a course that could easily chew you up and spit you out if you showed it anything less than total respect. 

The run to checkpoint one was filled with so much of the above and at 16km it felt like a great leg warmer, the day was still cool when I powered up the hill to the tables of food of drink but I noted that I had drained my Hydrapak 350ml bottle as well as the 150ml bottle – despite it not being a classically hot Spanish day there was heat in the running and so I filled my supplies, drank Coca Cola (yes the real stuff) and pressed on.


Sadly for me the weather started to turn on the run up to checkpoint two and the UTBCN quickly warmed up to a something more akin to a summer ultra. I’d opted for heavier summer weight kit and carrying spares of almost everything as I expected to be out anything up to 24hrs and wasn’t sure how quickly I could get through the unknown terrain. With the change in weather though my pack, which was heavy, simply felt like a drain on my own reserves. However, I made some changes to how I was wearing kit – removing buffs, visor on, sunglasses on, top up on sun cream and ensure I was eating as well as drinking enough.


I started passing through checkpoints at a decent pace and anywhere that running was an option I did, even the inclines as I knew that many of the downhills were very rocky with only the most nimble of speedgoats being able to hammer their way through them.

With less than 7.5 of the 24 permitted hours gone I passed through the halfway point kicked on as fast as I could knowing that the next sections would start to get trickier. I passed over some very steep up and downhills that had been assaulted by mud and rain and was slow going as your feet needed care to pass through unharmed.

However, despite the harshness of the terrain I was about to hit the 67km checkpoint in great time and with 33km to go I felt strong and assured in my running.


It was clear to me I’d thrown caution to the wind in the cooler temperatures and had leapt into the second half with a great aplomb and hurtled through the kilometres looking to make up as much ground on the course before nightfall set in. At the 67km checkpoint I placed on my pathetic emergency head torch and headed out and less than a kilometre later the sun finally dipped behind the beautiful northern Spain landscape and I was in the dark.

My problems now accelerated.

As mentioned, at the start line about 10.5hrs earlier, my brand new head torch had died, new batteries wouldn’t solve it and nor would prayer. So I was left with my backup head torch, the Petzl e-lite, which while superb kit is not a replacement for the Actik that was supposed to light my way.


Sadly I could barely see a metre ahead of me and the trail was even more dangerous in the dark than it was in the sunshine, over the 4km I ran in the dark I stumbled a dozen times. I tried following the light of other runners but this was of no use (and I couldn’t really do that for the final 28km) and so at 72km I sat at the checkpoint raging at my head torch manufacturer (Petzl) and at myself for I knew I had to pull out. I sat at the checkpoint for about 20 minutes before I was willing to DNF racking my brain for a solution, attempting to get my main light working but it wasn’t to be. 

A very sad end to a great race that I was actually running well!


Key points

  • Distance: 100km
  • Profile: Hilly
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Barcelona
  • Cost: €95
  • Terrain: Very variable trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route As for the race route itself well that was beautiful, with stunningly lush landscapes in all directions. It took you high above Barcelona and it took you down to the beach, what more could you ask for? The course itself was absolutely brutal in places and highly runnable in others, i think it’s fair to say it lends itself to local runners or mountain goats who know what to expect but any decent trail runner would really enjoy the magic of this race. 


Organisation and support The organisation was, I found, superb with multi lingual checkpoint staff, aid stations were all incredibly well stocked and tasty. The number collection was very easy (at a giant sports store in Barcelona) and it felt like a very inclusive race and drew people from all over the world and it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like me, would be very happy to go back and run this again. It’s fair to say that the support and organisation would be a key factor in luring me back for a crack at finishing this race. There was no of the manic feel that races like the UTMB have, it was so much more relaxed (but admittedly significantly smaller) but the intimacy and friendliness that was felt throughout the event makes you want to go back.

Additionally the website with a full English language version was much appreciated and easy to use. 

Awards and Goodies For finishers there was a medal and a nice one, I did not get one as I only completed the LTBCN route and not the UTBCN route. However, I did get a goody bag which contained lots of lovely little food nuggets, a lovely neck gaiter/buff, really tasty t-shirt and some other random bits that will all get used. 

Value for money? €95 for 100km? or you can downgrade elements like not getting a medal, t-shirt, etc and taking a cheaper package. I chose the all inclusive which pre-race I had thought was a little expensive but actually when you look at what you get, the stunning route, the amazing organisation, etc then actually this race looks like good value because it is. When you compare to say ‘The Race to the Stones’ or ‘The Wall’ or any OCR race then this really is good value and even when compared to its European race rivals this one stands up pretty well.

Lynne, Anna and Nia I mentioned earlier the people we stayed with, family to the GingaNinja and ultimately without them this wouldn’t have been nearly as possible – so my eternal thanks.

Petzl The failure of my brand new (fully tested) head torch before the race is unforgivable, I had to stop because of a failure created by someone else and that smarts. At the time of writing I’ve had no response from the company despite a number of messages (none of them abusive) but perhaps they simply don’t care about their customers – something to think about when you’re next considering a head torch purchase.

Conclusions This is a great event and if you looking for an easy to reach, tough as old boots ultra in nearby Europe then this should be high on your list. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning and the atmosphere upbeat. I doubt this race is on the radar of many of you but it should be and I hope you’ll at least look up the UTBCN for future consideration.

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