My favourite race ever. My return after running – and winning – the shorter Adventure category in 2015; this time to do the full Expedition category. It was 236km of fantastic hot, humid mountains, jungle, trails, beaches and running up rivers and waterfalls – what could be better?
Naturally I couldn’t even consider a high placing this time but I think I did as well as I could have expected. I finished 31st of the 77 starters, 23rd of the 56 male starters. I was also (I’m fairly sure) second in the over-50 age group. Nevertheless, I could have done better.
I ran day 1 far too cautiously and was comically inept at the final rocky river crossing. Day 2 was much better but I lost a lot of time on the first big climb of the day, stuck behind a train of slower runners on a very narrow, very long and very steep single track. On day 3 we had to run 10k upriver, where it was mainly knee to chest deep, sometimes deeper and strewn with ankle-wrecking rocks. Again my ineptitude at this lost me a lot of time, as did my lack of speed on some of the later steep climbs on fire tracks with no shade cover. I managed to pull some time back on the final beach and short road section but by then it was too late. Day 4 could also have been better. I was surprised by there being another unexpected river run and I also went slightly off course in a deep grass descent coming off the ridgeline, losing the markers. I finally picked one up in the distance but couldn’t see how to get to it and had to freestyle/slide very slowly to get back on course. I also chose the wrong shoes, picking out some older ones full of holes, not expecting any river crossings and so constantly filling with grit on the day’s river run. The next day, day 5 was the longest stage and I think I ran it better but at the mandatory boat crossing for the last river (no swimming allowed due to the possibility of crocodiles in the water), I just a full (5 person) boat leaving to cross and had to wait impatiently in the scorching sunshine for its return, to ferry me across, losing time. Finally, on day 6, it all seemed to come right and I had my best day position of the race, finishing with a fast sprint along the final beach section. I know where I have to improve if I ever do this race again – I so hope that I do.
Gear-wise, useful lessons were learned. My Salomon race vest was perfectly light, though carrying more water – and therefore weight – than usual, I suffered chafing rashes on my neck from early on day 1. The solution would have been to wear higher neck t-shirts or vests. I did this on day 2 and didn’t suffer – on the other days, with scantier vests, scars were gradually burned into my neck area at three points of contact, scabbing up and re-breaking each day before numbness set in and I didn’t notice in each day’s run. The race vest itself had more than adequate storage despite being the lightest in the range.
I used two 500ml and one 250 ml soft flask, before losing one of the 500ml bottles on day 4 and never ran out of liquid between checkpoints. I even had enough spare to tip on to my head to cool myself at times rather than drinking. Each day I filled the flasks with Tailwind and as each bottle ran out I replaced it with checkpoint-supplied water in one of the larger flasks and Gatorade in the other two. This meant I didn’t have to carry any food, though I availed myself of the pineapple and water melon at the aid stations, occasionally taking a salted potato or a small handful of peanuts too. It was plenty.
My Injinji socks worked perfectly and I suffered no foot problems and no blisters at all. The evening queues to see the foot doctors, the variety of bandaged toes and feet I saw and speaking with those who had to drop out, or drop down to the shorter race due to blisters proved the worth of my choice. The Inov-8 shoes I wore also performed well. My Trailroc 245s were my choice for the longer days and were perfectly comfortable with adequate grip. The soles of my X-Talon 200s were better for the steep descents but these were an old battered pair full of holes in the uppers, so I only used them on day 4, before binning them. The best learn though was that offered by my Terraclaw 220s. These were my newest shoes and with little experience in them, I used them only on the two shorter days, 1 and 6. They were again though perfectly comfortable and on the last day, which incorporate a river run, several sandy, gritty road fords, a couple of estuary wades and some soft beach running, I didn’t have to stop and empty them of sand and grit once. Teamed with my lightweight gaiters, though not entirely stopping the sand getting in, they kept enough out for me to be able to carry on running without wasting time stopping to empty them. None of my other shoes managed that.
The race itself and the entire week was paradise. The trails and scenery were green and lush and bathes in sunshine. The birds, butterflies, iguanas and monkeys were truly exotic for someone from the UK like me and the campsites, though basic, were wonderfully situated. The race director had secured trails that no-one used from year to year other than this race and in parts there was no trail other than that cut the day before by the race staff. The mountain-tops afforded panoramic and lush views, the jungle reminded you that you were in true wilderness (with lethal tree spikes and hazardous jungle vines ready to trip you at every step providing prompts, if needed) and the long sandy beaches fringed by palm trees and jungle were in many parts almost deserted for that tropical ‘desert-island’ feel.
Wifey also ran this year, participating in the shorter race and the first day was almost a disaster. As with several others, the later start, consequent higher temperatures and lack of acclimatisation made day 1 a lot tougher than it looks on paper, this also being the longest day for the shorter race. A little way before the final checkpoint a severe cramp immobilised the whole of one of her legs, probably caused by a lack of electrolyte consumption. She tried to struggle on but the leg was rigid. Fortunately one of the race staff was spotting from up on high through his binoculars and it was observed she was in trouble. Naoko was determined to try and carry on, knowing losing her medal was at stake but it was impossible and dizziness also set in. An attempted ‘piggy-back’ carry made the leg worse and as her location was inaccessible by car, a stretcher eventually had to be called four. The staff that struggled with her down a steep hill to the nearest road were magnificent. There a race ambulance treated her with an intravenous drip, with gradually brought her back to normal.
Meanwhile, I was waiting at the finish line in absolute ignorance of what had happened until I later found her in the medical tent. Worry and guilt (for persuading her to do the race) prevailed and Naoko’s air of disappointment with what had happened was palpable. I feared that was it and her race was over but she agreed to see how she felt the next day. Fortunately day 2 in the shorter race was mostly downhill followed by a flat beach section. Naoko ran and completed it and did the same for days, 3, 4, 5 and 6, getting stronger each day and finishing the race with a strong run to the finish line. She was even telling me every day how she was really enjoying each day’s run and so many people were saying they were amazed by her strength and bravery. Her perseverance and determination were recognised at the final awards ceremony when she was awarded the ‘Endurance under adversity’ prize and took her place for the prizewinner’s photo-shoot, along with all the elite athlete podium finishers. She was delighted; I was so proud.
It would be unfair to finish without mentioning the race staff, who all did a fantastic job. From the medical staff who looked after and treated Naoko so well, to those at the checkpoints dispensing nutrition and encouragement and then sweeping up behind to collect every single race marker, they ensured everything ran smoothly. The camp staff as well, who transported our bags and tents each day, built, dismantled and built again the portable kitchen and dining areas and the wonderful chefs that provided breakfast lunch and dinner to everyone of high quality and plentiful proportions, were amazing. They had to get up before 3.00am each day to start cooking and were still cleaning up at gone 10.00pm every night. All these people are paid volunteers and many have done it for each of the 13 years the race has been running. Many are runners themselves, who truly understand the needs of the racers. They help to make a great event perfect.
I wonder if I can return again…