Morocco Day 5 – Hiking from Tiziane to Imska

Today was the anniversary of the Green March. This was a march of 350,000 unarmed Moroccans on the Spanish Saharan region of Sakiya Lhmra. It was a protest against the Spanish government, and was accompanied by demands to decolonise the area so it could be under Moroccan control. In the years that have passed since the area remains disputed, and is now known as Western Sahara. It’s a border that is inadvisable for tourists to approach.

I slept better than any night before, but then I didn’t have much for breakfast as today was boiled eggs. Fortunately I’d got cereal bars with me so had one of those before packing my bags for the day. This journey would be the easiest one yet, or at least should be.

The sun was shining so a definite day for wearing sunscreen. To be honest it’s a requirement everyday in the mountains due to the altitude, but it’s something I managed to miss on the first day.

Today’s trek started off with a descent down to the river, and then a climb on road surface to a radio tower. It was a big difference after the trails we’d hiked across so far, but it wasn’t exactly tarmac.

This first climb wasn’t that bad; it was for the most part easy. We passed another football pitch along the way, and for a time our guide was talking to a local who was walking in the same direction.

At the top, beyond the radio mast, we stopped to rest on the hillside until the mules caught up with us. The local that had been talking to Hassan climbed onto the top of a passing vehicle on the road which eventually leads to Imi Ourhlad.

Our descent was trailing the mules the entire way down. Whenever a mule tried to go the wrong way it was hit by a stick until it had diverted back onto the path. It can’t be a nice life being a beast of burden like this. They had carried our luggage and food supplies since Imlil, and in each case had arrived ahead of us.

I liked to think that one of them was named “Bill” after the pony in The Lord of the Rings. I could imagine what the long journey on foot from Rivendell to at least Moria must have been like in that fictional story. Without the peril of course, though you do have to watch your footing.

The sun was at full strength as we were approaching midday. It was hot, but I kept my hoodie on to protect my arms from the sun, and my cap to protect the back of my neck. Despite my best efforts I was already burnt.

Eventually the trail runs through the village of Imi Ourhlad where it runs along what appears to be a cross between a mostly dried up river, and their dumping ground. A lot of the initial buildings here were as red as the sand and were how I pictured older Moroccan buildings in my mind before the trip.

At midday we stopped at a shop for drinks, and relaxed there for an hour. I paid 30 dirhams towards the drinks which to be honest is very cheap. It was nice to be able to drink a Coca Cola for a change.

When we set off it felt warmer than before. We continued along the riverbed which was a putrid combination of rotten apples, donkey droppings, and water. When this reached a stream I jumped from rock to rock to avoid my feet getting wet, which is no small effort with a heavy backpack.

The climb then felt very hard. I felt far too warm and was struggling to concentrate. If I took my jumper off I’d cool down, but then my arms would be unprotected and the sunburn would get worse as I wasn’t convinced the factor fifty sunscreen was working.

I kept reminding myself that instead of keeping my head down, and concentrating on the climb that I needed to look up and take in the surroundings occasionally too. Behind me I could see the road in the valley, and plenty of cars using it. It had been a brief glimpse of civilisation before returning to the mountains.

After thirty minutes we reached the top, and from there most of us ran to Imska. It was a slow pace to start with, but once we hit the road I decided to run as fast as I dared to with my camera in my hand. It was nice to run from the downhill trail onto the road, and I managed to get Hassan to work hard to stay in front. I wondered how it would have been if I’d not got my camera and backpack on me – he probably had a lot more speed in him.

The gite in Imska was nicer than the last, though the facilities not as good. After arriving we sat on the terrace for tea, and then shortly after some lunch. The terrace here overlooked a valley where we could see another part of Imska on the other side.

From this terrace we could see a green woodpecker, but it was gone before I could get my camera. Whilst waiting for our eventual village walk, I decided to take a shower. This wasn’t quite as bad as the last one, but instead of the hot water cutting out it was the cold water. It might scold, but somehow it doesn’t seem as bad.

The shower head was a little broken as it’d spray hot water out of the side in one direction, and cold water out of the other side. Nothing would spray through the actual nozzles. It’s a different sort of challenge, but I think the people there have bigger problems.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent talking with the guide, and convincing him that people had been to the moon. He’d never heard of Neil Armstrong or the Apollo program. It sounded laughable to him that people could leave this planet. I guess there is a limit to what information they can get there, and he’s not yet been able to afford a visa to go on holiday outside the country.

As dusk approached I went to see what the chef was cooking as I was sure I could smell chips, or as the Americans would call them – fries. My nose hadn’t deceived me – sure enough he was sitting their and frying potatoes using the equipment he’d been carrying on the back of the mule for the past few days.

Later in the evening these were served with spaghetti and chicken to produce a very filling meal. It was certainly a surprise! We thanked them for the meal, and sat talking as a full group for one last time. In the morning the muleteer and the chef would be off on their own to drop our bags off at the Kasbah du Toubkal, and we wouldn’t be seeing them again.

I listened to the French being spoken and understood it, but didn’t feel confident enough to reply in French. Even though my Spanish is almost non-existent there were times when the first word that sprang to mind was Spanish instead of French, maybe because of my travels over the past few years; so perhaps English was for the best.

The night ended by finishing of the game of crib we’d started earlier in the day.

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Morocco Day 4 – Hiking from Tizgui to Tiziane

Of all the days hiking, we were told this would be the hardest as we’d be climbing three passes. At around 05:20 the call to prayer was loud, and went on for quite some time. This time though it was musical. It wasn’t the only call though as a little after this was the usual chanting one.

At 09:00 we set off once more with a climb through the village to start, and followed the path higher into the mountains. This trail took us passed a football pitch where the dusty red ground was flat, and the outline was marked with rocks. For goalposts they’d used trees that had been cut down and tied together. It’d be a fair walk from either of the nearby villages, but apparently they do play each other occasionally. Playing football on the side of the mountain, I’d feel sorry for the ball boy.

It didn’t take too long to reach the first pass and was a relatively easy climb through an area of red rocks that reminded me of Arizona and Utah. It’s amazing how eventually places in the world just blend from one into another. At the top we paused for a water break, and the mules carrying our bags caught up with us. We walked with them for sometime and reached the second pass.

The climb to this second one was harder, though still wasn’t that bad. At the bottom of this valley the mules left us as they headed in a different direction – the way they were going was to avoid the riverbed we’d be taking as it was now too difficult for mules since the building of some flood defences.

I was glad we were doing a walking pace as I think if we’d been running we wouldn’t have had as much time to take in our surroundings. I don’t think my legs would have been keen on it either as I don’t believe I’m good enough at hills for this. It gave me time to take more photographs.

At the top of the third and final pass we paused for a time whilst Hassan spoke to another guide; our intended stop wasn’t far passed this – underneath a tree where we could pause for a snack. Whilst there I sat and watched an African blue tit flying around, though struggled to get a photograph of it.

Even though this mountain is dry and far from any water, there was a frog on the ground as well. I thought it looked a bit desiccated so prodded it with a stick. It was dead. I could only assume a bird had carried it from elsewhere, and dropped it there.

Having rested enough, we started to descend once again. This would be our final descent though is the hardest of the descents on this trail. It started with loose ground that would shift underfoot, so I found myself alternating between looking at the green-blue mountainside, and the ground.

On one side we’d got the mountainside with trees that were twisted and dry-looking. To our right was the slope down to the dried-up riverbed that would likely be a raging river in the rainy season, or following the melting of mountain glaciers. In the previous few months before we’d taken this trail, they’d built a large number of dams to avoid the floods causing damage.

Part of this descent was through mounds of sheep droppings that had coloured the ground green. This wasn’t pleasant, especially when it moved as you stood on it. It’s one of those things though – you just have to deal with it and move on. The ground would soon change again to another type of surface.

Howard told us that people often complain about this descent, but I don’t think it was that bad really. The only thing making it particularly difficult was the ever present heat from the bright sun. I’d chosen to put a hoodie on to keep my arms covered, but it was causing me to overheat.

When we reached the level of the riverbed we crossed to the other side in order to pass the dam. There was a ramp up one side, and then a steep slope down on the other side with very loose ground which Hassan helped us down from one by one. I wasn’t too bothered if I slipped, just so long as I could keep my camera safe.

We stayed at the level of the riverbed for the majority of the remaining descent, and had to cross dams a few more times, but for these I found moving quickly was the safest way to cross them.

Eventually we ascended out of the riverbed and walked along a road to Tiziane, and then onward through the winding alleyways between buildings. This village has concrete paths, and seemed better off than they were in the previous village.

The gite here was over a stable, and I don’t think as nice. The flies around the terrace were annoying, and are ones which apparently bite. The previous gites had multiple toilet and shower facilities that were very modern, though this one wasn’t quite the same.

The shower was a ceramic hole in the floor with a leaking tap above it. It had a problem with drainage so couldn’t be switched on for long, and the hot water kept cutting out. I decided it was best to just use it for a quick wash.

The toilet there was one which had a tap to turn on to fill the cistern whenever you wanted to use it. If you sat down then you had to be careful it didn’t move underneath you as it didn’t seem to be fixed in place either.

We were led from the gite to the neighbouring town of Tizi Zougouart, where we walked around. John and Deb began handing out stationery and sweets to the children but were soon surrounded by them. Each one tugged at Deb, and were continuously holding out their hands for more. They’d tried to limit it to one per person, but this was too much for them and they found themselves needing to hand out more and more.

I stood and looked on from a distance, or at least tried to. In most villages their charity had been appreciated, but here it felt like children just wanted more.

Hassan took charge of the bag and continued our tour of the village, whilst the children followed like some strange version of the pied piper. Even though I’d not been involved they occasionally tugged on my arms and the back of my shirt, asking me for sweets too – even though I didn’t have any.

On our way back to the village we were staying in, the army of children swamped Deb once more. This time she fell over as she sped up to try and lose them. Fortunately she wasn’t injured in the fall.

Back at the gite in Tiziane we found a French couple had arrived who had been in Morocco for a while and were now hiking similar paths to us. They lived in the same village in France that John and Deb had visited a number of times so they had something else in common to talk about.

We had vegetarian tajine for the evening meal – prunes, courgettes, sultanas, carrots, and potatoes. There was the usual soup starter, and the dessert was cinnamon coated orange segments.

The dormitories here were the same as elsewhere – a series of mats laid out on the floor with a pillow for each. Tonight’s room was upstairs and opened out onto the terrace, and could sleep six.

As before, we split into two groups but this time there wasn’t one spare for the support crew so Hassan, the guide, was going to use the same room as us. There used to be more rooms, but the owner of this gite had moved back in along with his family and were now using two of the rooms downstairs.

We sat and played cards for a few hours in the evening, but as Hassan had already retired to the room we felt we shouldn’t stay out too late. The room was cool, probably because of the gap under the door and the wooden windows that wouldn’t quite fill the holes properly. The roof was wooden too so may not have been the best of insulators. At least I’d got my sleeping bag to stay warm.

Morocco Day 3 – Hiking from Tizi Oussem to Tizgui

It’s not often I sleep in a sleeping bag, but I got more sleep than I had in Marrakech. I was awake at 05:00 with morning call to prayer from this village’s mosque. I sat awake waiting for others to be awake, and after two more hours was able to start packing my bags again. It was like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle trying to get it to all fit, and once again there were bits I couldn’t get in.

We headed out after breakfast and began our descent into the valley where the stream had created a lot of green areas. This was followed by another long ascent, along mostly drier ground despite a stream we followed for some of it. This climb seemed easier, even though my legs were a little tight from the day before.

In places there were goats drinking from from the stream. The further we got, the more goats we encountered as well as a herder and a dog. The dog came running after us to warn us away from the goats; that is until Hassan threw a stone at it.

It took 130 minutes to get to the pass over the mountain – we were about twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We stopped there, snacked, and sipped from our water bottles for thirty-five minutes whilst sheltering from the incredibly strong winds. So far it was two days running we’d encountered strong winds at around the same time of day. It was little wonder Mount Toubkal was not safe for us to climb.

The wind was making it cold, so I put on a hoodie before beginning the descent across scree. Once we were sheltered from the wind the temperature rose quickly. Unlike the previous day’s descent, this one didn’t really have any bits that were ascents, though I didn’t feel the ground was the sort I’d want to run on so walked the entire way. In truth, if I’d been running already then it would probably have been fine – I was just using it as an excuse to walk.

In places I did slide, but always regained my balance quickly. I think the surface here could have done with walking boots, or at least shoes with some sort of grip. My running shoes provided very little cushioning or grip so didn’t feel ideal. I managed with what I’d got so it is possible, and our guide had shoes with no grip at all anyway.

We stopped on this descent for a short break overlooking mountains that were blues, green, and red. It was an amazing view of the valley we’d be descending still further into. For every mile we descended we’d have to ascend again on the next day. Usually these two days would be done as a single day for runners, though I’d imagine it to be tougher than I’d manage.

This last section crossed the stream a number of times, and passed along ledges overlooking the water. Even on terrain this easy you have to be weary of your surroundings – Howard hit his head on a low hanging branch from a tree that hung over the stream.

We arrived at the gite in Tizgui at 13:50 having completed our ten mile trek. I’d say this wasn’t a bad pace, and I’m sure even running we wouldn’t have cut much time off that – maybe a little over an hour.

Not long after arriving we were served a lunch of macaroni and omelette. It was good, I just wasn’t that hungry. It seemed I was starting to get used to having a bigger breakfast and evening meal, and having a lighter lunch.

The rest of the day was to do with as we pleased, so I took the time to relax, shower, and play cards with the others before going for a wander around the village at 16:30 so we’d return again in time for the evening meal.

This village was very different to Tizi Oussem – it is bigger and feels more prosperous. Though I suspect they were in fact worse off – first appearances can be deceiving.

Children there play football in an open square, and adults are either working or sitting around near the shops. The shops appeared to all be near each other along a single high path; I guess it could be considered to be their high street.

After completing a lap of the village we returned to the gite to relax some more whilst the meal was cooking. We sat and had tea with Oreos in the lounge and played estimation wist.

The evening meal was another soup, and then couscous with beef, and many vegetables. This time we’d finished by 19:30; much earlier than the night before. The rest of the night was split between talking and playing cards. The full support crew were with us, and you could tell at times that there was a definite hierarchy between them as the muleteer was occasionally the butt of the chef and guides jokes.

As we’d finally got an open air terrace I decided it be a good idea to get some photos of the night sky before going to to bed. Bed being a relative term in this case.

Morocco Day 2 – Hiking from Imlil to Tizi Oussem

I got up at 06:30 for a shower and then started getting what I’d need for the day ready. It’d been a mostly sleepless night due to noise from someone in the room above until 02:30. Breakfast was a very basic continental style, though I suspected it may be the best breakfast for at least a few days. I decided it’d be best to eat lightly since we’d soon be running.

When getting ready, I realised I’d misjudged how much I could fit into my adventure pack, and struggled to fit everything into it. My only chance was to put the excess into a dry bag and hope it wouldn’t get left behind.

We left the hotel at 09:00 and began our journey south to Imlil. Once we’d left Marrakech behind us, the type of buildings changed considerably and in Asni you could see the reduction in prosperity. Before reaching the mountains we also saw camels alongside the road.

An article I’d read on the plane had described Imlil as being like Kathmandu. It’s not. It doesn’t have the same feeling of over-crowdedness, and doesn’t have backpackers at every turn. The village is situated in the Imlil valley, with a stream which made it remind me more of Aguas Calientes in Peru.

We met Hassan there who would be our guide for the next few days in the High Atlas Mountains. Our main luggage went with Lessem and Mohammad who were taking it by mule to a gite situated in another valley. Mohammad would be our chef for the week, and Lessem would be looking after the mules. These three would form our support crew for the adventure.

The path from Imlil winds as it slowly ascends to a pass between mountain peaks. When we started we were at 1,700 metres above sea level, and at the pass we’d be at 2,400 metres.

Along the way we stopped at Hassan’s house for twenty minutes to have some Berber tea – which contains mint and sugar. Served with this was a plate of mixed nuts. Hassan jokes that Berber tea is Berber whisky due to its colouration – it’s something the locals often refer to it as.

It’s name comes from the local populace of the High Atlas Mountains, the Berber. These are a people that are spread out across much of the northern countries of Africa, and their name is derived from the Egyptian word for outlander.

Whilst in the cities of Morocco they speak both Arabic and French, a lot of the Berber settlements in the mountains would predominantly speak Berber — of which Morocco has at least three variations of. Those that are lucky enough to go to school may later learn French.

It was under 4.5 miles to reach the top at Tizi h’Mzik, but it took time due to the steepness and winding of the path. At the top they often serve lunch, but with the wind it meant they’d be serving it in the gite we’d be staying in later. Leaving it until later is actually better for the mules anyway as it means they don’t have to be unloaded.

I didn’t run much of it at all, only a few moments of the ascent. I stopped a few times for the others to catch up, and felt the heat of the sun beating down on me.

Whilst resting at the top I sat and had a flapjack and some water, and then set off with Hassan to run some of the remainder of the trail. The ground is loose and uneven, there are sharp turns, and many things to keep an eye out for. I was keeping one eye on the landscape to see what there was to photograph, so found myself stopping frequently when I spotted something.

I think without my camera backpack I’d have found this considerably easier, but I wanted it in case I needed it. Lack of concentration meant I took some slopes and corners too quickly which made me slide into trees along the path.

Eventually I decided it would be better to walk. Before this we passed a couple of cyclists on one uphill slope. I can’t imagine how difficult it’d have been to cycle on this path – in places even walking didn’t feel that easy.

When we stopped at a refuge for the walkers to catch up I realised just how dusty the track was. I was filthy.

It didn’t take long to run from the refuge to the gite in Tizi Oussem. This valley looked very different to the last one, and the colours varied greatly as we progressed through the hills. The last stretch had to be walked as we’d encountered some slow moving mules.

In the gite there is a dusty open plan terrace which overlooks the valley, and some stairs leading down to the living quarters. There are two bedrooms that consist of five mats on the floor, a lounge, and a very basic washroom. At first I thought we’d be sleeping upstairs in the open, as I’d thought the downstairs bit was someone’s house.

Whilst Mohammad prepared a salad for us, I drank some more Berber tea that was served in the lounge. When lunch was served there was little I could eat other than the rice. The meat served with this was mackerel, and as I don’t eat fish or seafood I passed on that too. Sometimes not being very keen on most common parts of a salad is not helpful.

I emptied some of my backpack into one of bedrooms and then went to use their hammam. This ramshackle building has an antechamber where you can undress, and then a second room where the floor is heated by a log fire underneath. It heats a tin of water in the middle of the room which you can add cold water to from a tap in order to get some water at the right temperature for washing with. You then use the two tubs inside the tin to pour the water over yourself. You just need to be careful where you stand as the heat from the floor will burn your feet – except around the edges of the room.

The custom of hammams is an old African one, but evolved during the Roman occupation to include a cold plunge pool. In this case it was a more traditional Berber hammam.

With only thirty minutes before sunset we went for a walk around the village. The others were giving the children stationery and sweets until we were invited into a house for a drink. We felt we should accept this Berber hospitality, so followed him to his home, and sat in the kitchen.

The kitchen isn’t one like you’d see in England – it’s a separate stone building with a roof made from the branches of juniper trees. At the far end of the room is an alcove with a chimney, and a log burning to heat a pot.

We sat on the makeshift chairs, and he brought a small table to us. On this he placed a pot of coffee, a plate of walnuts, and a large piece of homemade bread.

As we talked there were two cats that were going in and out of the kitchen, seeking some attention. They were for the most part ignored though. The owner of this property told our guide about an abscess one of his family had in her mouth, and asked for more hydrocortisone cream.

None of us had any, but John thought some aspirin may help so offered to get it from the gite. Most medicines you have to be careful giving to people as you can’t know if they’ll be allergic to them, or even if they’ll misunderstand the usage instructions.

Whilst we were there the sun had set and night had fallen quickly. To get back to the gite we had to use the lights on our mobile phones as torches. A little while later they served us dinner – it was a soup starter, followed by tagine. This is a Moroccan dish served steaming hot in an earthenware pot containing in this instance potato, beef, carrots, olives, tomatoes, and aubergine. They then served us a glass of pomegranates for dessert.

It had been a long day and I found myself setting my sleeping bag up not that long after. My legs hadn’t been used to hill climbs like this, and now they wanted a rest.

Morocco Day 1 – Leicester to Marrakesh

I got up thirty minutes earlier than I normally would if I’d been going to work. I needed to be at the airport for 10:30 to drop my car off, and then my luggage. Unusually the roads were almost empty and I made such good time that I stopped for a doughnut along the way to waste some time.

Valet parking made the terminal arrival very easy, though I found due to a computer malfunction I’d got another hour to waste before I could drop-off my checked luggage. Having both a premium card, and a business class flight meant I could use the priority security for quickness.

The British Airways lounge was nice; it was quiet, and it served complimentary food and drink. I sat and had a cup of earl grey tea until I figured out that further into the lounge they were providing a continental breakfast. As it approached midday they changed this to be various warm dishes such as chilli con carne.

I stayed in the lounge longer than I should have as by the time I’d left it seemed everyone else with priority boarding had already gone through the gate.

There was a short delay in boarding the flight as in the captain’s own words, “the cleaning crew hadn’t done a good enough job”. We had to stand in the bus and wait for this to finish.

The difference between business class with BA Europe, and other times I’ve flown business is that on this flight the seats are just the same as economy, but the middle seat is not used so you’re guaranteed to not be seated next to anybody that might encroach on your personal space.

This flight was one of the few in recent years that did not have an in-flight entertainment system. It’s a shame it was also a flight where I needed to minimise battery usage. So time passed by slower than it could have. I read their inflight magazine that featured an interview with Buzz Aldrin, and an article that just happened to be about a hike through the Toubkal National Park in the Atlas Mountains.

The complimentary food on the flight was good, and also frequent. After a quinoa starter there was beef bourguignon, or pasta with salmon; then a cherry and almond frangipane for dessert with cheese and crackers.

The flight landed at 17:40, and for the next hour I was working my way through immigration, baggage collection, currency exchange, and security. At security they got me to open both bags to ensure I’d not got a drone on me – they can’t be brought into the country. They didn’t seem to care about anything else – everyone with difficult to scan bags was being asked the same question.

The rest of the group were flying in from Manchester and were scheduled to arrive ninety minutes after me; but had actually landed around the time I got to the waiting area. Joining the trip would be a couple from Manchester who were friends of the organiser.

I then only had a wait of thirty minutes for the others to join me, and from there we had transportation to the hotel. After check-in we walked a short distance to a nearby Italian restaurant for an evening meal. It was almost 21:00 by the time we were seated, so already a long day.

I wasn’t that hungry but still tried the pizza there, it was a nice thin crust one that focused on the topping. It was supposed to be Hawaiian which usually means ham and pineapple, but this being a Muslim country meant it was pineapple and parsley.

We were back at the hotel at around 22:30 so after a long day, I decided I’d leave getting my bag sorted until the morning.

Morocco – Trip Preparation

In a year that started off with a trip around Utah visiting it’s national parks, I thought that in my tenth year of seeing the world that I’d be following this up with a more adventurous trip to Chile and Easter Island. Unfortunately the friend I was going to be travelling with could no longer afford it due to a change in circumstances. This was something I already knew at the time of going to Utah so it meant I’d got some time to think about where I could go instead – if anywhere at all.

In the UK I’ve gone on a couple of training weekends for running which have been organised by Howard who runs an adventure travel company called Right Altitude. My experience of these training weekends had been good, and I knew that he ran hiking trips in the Atlas Mountains, but as of yet the timings of the trips hadn’t worked with my calendar.

When I saw the news that he’d be organising a trip in November I quickly did some research to make sure it’d be suitable, and paid the deposit. Within days of this though I became unsure what was going to happen as the Department of Homeland Security in the US announced a travel ban on electronic devices in aircraft cabins that are over a certain size. Although I wasn’t going to the US, it was rumoured that the UK would be following suit. On the American’s list of affected airports was Morocco.

When the UK finally confirmed that there’d be our own version of the travel ban I got lucky as Morocco was not included. It meant I’d be able to travel with my camera equipment as hand luggage. There are many reasons why this was significant, but for starters there is the concern that valuables stored in the hold are not covered by travel insurance. If anything was to happen to my cameras in the hold then they wouldn’t be covered – and this would include theft should they be stolen from the baggage carousel for example.

My next step was to decide what I was going to be doing. The Right Altitude section of this adventure would be for seven days, but I was keen on going off on my own afterwards to explore some more. To figure this one out I searched the internet for sights to see in Morocco and found the highest concentration of interesting places to be in the nearby city of Rabat. This wasn’t far from Casablanca, a place I’d been advised to not bother visiting. I did however think that because it was the setting for the famous movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, and also in a Marx Brothers movie, that it would be worth a passing visit. Even if there was nothing else to see I might get to take some photographs of the Hassan II mosque.

As I wasn’t sure I looked at what ground transportation was available and asked around about what their trains were like. Alice Morrison, an Arabist and explorer who presented the “Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure” documentary for BBC 2, commented that they were good so that was enough to confirm it was possible. I went ahead and booked a hotel in Marrakesh for the end of the Right Altitude adventure, and then booked a hotel for Rabat the following night.

Whilst looking at trains I was also looking at flights. I found that the best option would also be one of the most comfortable ones. I decided I’d fly business class with British Airways from London Gatwick directly to the airport in Marrakesh – this would be less than four hours in the air. Getting to and from the airport in London would be trickier for me though. It being a weekday I couldn’t get any family to help out, which meant I’d either have to drive there and park up for the week, take a taxi, or use the trains.

If I was to take the train to Gatwick then it’d be £91.70 in a single direction, and the same again on top for a return. The downside to this though is that my flight would be getting in too late to catch the train home so I’d need to find an alternative – especially if I wanted to be back in the office on Monday morning. A taxi was even more expensive – it’d be £110 in each direction, but would at least be an option for the return journey as well. This then left the option of driving and parking up – something I’ve never been keen on. Of the different parking options available I found that their premium valet service, although not the cheapest, would be £87 and would guarantee covered parking whilst I was away. It was looking like although this adventure would be tiring there would be some comfort too.

When I went back to looking at whether or not to visit Casablanca a colleague recommended a visit to the nearby Ouarzazate as not only was it used in the filming of movies such as Gladiator, it was also used in the HBO TV series, Game of Thrones. My only problem was how to fit it in – it seemed the only way to visit required a full day, which I didn’t have. Instead I found plenty I could try and find in Marrakesh.

For this trip it was advised that some sort of bag is used instead of a suitcase as it’d be carried by mules, and across river crossings. I didn’t have anything I could use, but came across a Cotopaxi campaign on Indiegogo for a new adventure travel backpack. It only had a 35 litre capacity which meant it’d be tight – but with the use of vacuum bags and dry bags things would fit and remain dry. This also needed to include things such as a sleeping bag (this would be needed during the cold nights), and a quick drying travel towel.

I didn’t want to take my camera backpack either as running with it would be difficult so instead needed to figure out a way to fit my camera equipment into a lighter backpack, and keep it safe. I packed it once with lenses and camera bodies wrapped in bubblewrap, but I still wasn’t happy with it. In the end I decided the only way was to change the plan – run with my camera backpack. I don’t think I’ve ever obsessed over what to pack and how to pack it so much.

My eventual packing list was:

  • Cotopaxi Allpa 35l adventure travel pack,
    • Sleeping bag,
    • Sleeping bag liner,
    • Inflatable pillow with cover,
    • Solar-powered light,
    • Travel towel,
    • Running shoes,
    • 6x running socks,
    • 2x running shorts,
    • 5x running tees,
    • Baselayer,
    • Running hoodie,
    • Flipbelt
    • Running cap with removable neck protection,
    • 10x boxers,
    • 5x walking socks,
    • 4x tees,
    • Baseball cap,
    • Waterproof coat,
    • Swimming trunks,
    • Wash bag.
  • Lowepro Pro Runner 350 AW camera backpack,
    • Canon EOS 5D mk2,
    • Canon EOS 5D mk3,
    • Canon 28-135mm lens,
    • Sigma 150-500mm lens,
    • 5x camera batteries,
    • 5x compact flash cards,
    • iPad Pro with keyboard,
    • Pen, pencil, and paper,
    • 7x AA batteries,
    • Card reader with built-in Wi-Fi and powerbank,
    • 2x power banks,
    • Charging cables,
    • Snacks.

It was a lot to take, but not all of it would need to come back with me. The pair of running shoes for example were reaching there end of life so would likely be disposed of before travelling home.

Thoresby 10 2017

Having a race the weekend after two weekends of marathons may not be the greatest of ideas. To make matters worse I decided to increase the distance for this race from the 10K option, to the 10 mile option. Excellent. At least after this I’d have a few weeks without races.

When booking the Thoresby 10 I pictured an off-road trail that’d be muddy, and slow. I thought it’d be nice to give it a go, but thought that ten miles of it might be a but much. When I realised I hadn’t run a ten mile race this year – that’s when I decided to increase the distance I’d be running.

On the day of the race we were at the tail end of what had been dubbed “Storm Brian”. Our weather is nothing like what they get in the US so it seems silly we’ve taken to naming them. I think perhaps the UK was just feeling left out. Anyway, this meant it looked like we were going to have a very wet and windy day.

By the time I got to Thoresby, the rain had stopped, but the wind was still howling. I made my way in shorts and tee to the registration tent and collected my number and timer. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, but fortunately someone there was showing people how to strap it to their legs. Mine kept coming loose, but I figured as long as it didn’t come off then all would be okay.

The wind wasn’t letting up, and was making me feel colder so I eventually decided I needed another layer. I thought I’d get my skins top, but I bumped into Nic and Emma on the way to my car and they offered to keep hold of my extra layer whilst running, so I decided my #ukrunchat hoodie would be even better!

When the time came for the race briefing I noticed that the canicross runners were starting with the 10 mile runners. I hadn’t realised they’d be starting in the same wave, but they were all moved to the front. This seems pretty standard for races where there are dogs running. It’s just one more thing to be mindful of on on the course.

I set off far faster than I intended and covered the first quarter of a mile at 5:05min/mile pace. Too fast. I’d let myself get caught up in the pace of the race, and not the pace I wanted to be at, so I eased off a little. I settled into a 6:40 to 6:50 min/mile pace, which is what I wanted. I was still overtaking a few people, including someone who was wheezing very loudly. I asked if they were okay and they nodded, so perhaps that’s just normal for them.

The terrain varied a lot between muddy trails through trees, and bits of gravel. The only bit where I found I had to really slow down was when I encountered these really large pebbles that had been used to fill in a hole in the path. We’d been warned about them in the briefing so I knew they were coming, but I thought it might have been some overly cautious notices (such as warnings about the lake before doing Braunstone Parkrun). It really wasn’t overly cautious – I’m glad they’d told us. As well as slowing down considerably I tried to run on the outside of them in hope it’d reduce the risk of rolling my ankle.

On an area with a wide open field I felt the strong cross-winds of Storm Brian the most. It felt like I was being blown to the side, and found it difficult. I was glad once we were back amongst the trees.

I started to pass a number of the canicross runners, and these were in places difficult to pass – especially those that had multiple dogs. Some were good and were calling to their dogs to move over, but some had very little control over them. I always get slowed down in events that double as a canicross – it never fails. It’s just the way it is though, and seeing the different dogs can be fun!

When you’re out on the course it’s easy to forget things about the course, but then that’s why there are marshals there. They volunteer to make sure the event is safe, and that people are going the right way. When I got to four miles I started to think about when it was we were supposed to be turning left onto an inner loop before repeating a section. I’d got it in my mind that it was sometime around mile 7. All I could remember about that from the briefing is that we’d be directed the right way by a marshal, and if we went wrong then we’d be doing 13 miles. Well… that wouldn’t be too bad, as with the pace I was averaging it looked likely I’d have done a half marathon in 89 minutes.

On this section that is repeated there’s a water station (I didn’t bother with this – in these mild conditions I don’t need fuel or water) and a couple of hills. One of the hills was a little tough, and on the first pass I did think to myself I’d struggle with that the next time around. I’d dropped in behind a group of three runners at this point, with one of them just pulling away from their group to take the lead. Their pace suited my needs, so I stuck with them for a while.

Eventually there was a sign that said sharp left and once around this corner I said a sign that just said “10 miles”. It seems I’d passed the fork and was now on the inner loop.

As I exited the inner loop I found we were joining other runners. I couldn’t tell if this was the back of the ten mile group, part of the 10K group, or a combination of the two. Not long after this I overtook two of the three people I’d been following for the past few miles.

From that point on I was eagerly looking out for the sign where the fork was, as I’d not seen one on the first time around. Eventually I saw a sign that pointed the 10K runners to the right, but couldn’t see one for the ten mile runners – I think the marshal directing runners might have been standing in front of it. Oops. The marshal was now shouting “10 mile runners to the left, 10K runners to the right”.

The remaining runner I’d been following for sometime, I followed as he went in the direction of the 10K. Behind me I heard someone shout to the marshal “is it to the right for second lap?!”. When I heard her reply with a “yes” I knew I’d gone the right way. Excellent.

After the race I was told about a few 10 mile runners who had been sent around again, despite the pre-race warning, and had ended up running 13 miles instead. That’s then problem with lapped courses: when you’re tired you do what the marshals say, so if they send you one way, then you do it.

As the grass changed to concrete I saw Nic and Emma standing on the side of the road so waved as I passed. My legs were aching incredibly by this point and I knew I’d slowed down a lot as the two runners I’d overtaken were now not too far behind me again.

After that it felt like I was running into the wind all the way to the finish. I didn’t want to walk, even though it’d have been nice to, as I knew I was now so close. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the two runners closing in on me so I pushed harder, but was unable to get up to a sprint – the wind was pushing back.

When I reached the final straight I didn’t bother to sprint as I thought if I did I might just vomit so instead took it easy for those last metres. Just as I crossed the finish line the other two runners crossed at pretty much the same time. We shook each others hands, and then I went to remove the timers from my ankle.

I joined the queue to get the finishers medal, and after that got a bag, a bottle of water, and a packet of crisps (I didn’t feel like a banana). I walked over to the results tent and got my time – I’d finished in 68:18 in position 12 (6th for my age group) of 315 (first 4%). Sure, it’s not my fastest 10 mile time as I’d recently set a new PB, but for the conditions and the course I was extremely pleased with the result! I’m now left feeling confident again about being able to set a half marathon PB this year. It was tough, but I enjoyed it very much.

 

I then walked over to where Nic and Emma were so I could join them in waiting for Amy to pass. This was her first ten mile race and did fantastic.

When I got home it was pointed out to me that I’d been given a medal for the 10K and not the 10 mile race. Apparently later on in the day there had been two queues, one for 10K and one for 10 miles, but when I finished there was just one lady handing out medals. She’d given me the wrong one. I have no idea how as when there’s multiple events going on at the same time they usually check your bib. It seems this one didn’t. I can only assume I got a 10K one as the person in front of me had been running that one, and she hadn’t noticed the next runner wasn’t a 10K also (she was busy talking to someone about curtsying).

It’s not really a big deal, but after a great day it felt soured initially. Before it was pointed out to me I was happy with the day, blissfully ignorant of any issue. Fortunately, the organisers for the event are really good at listening, and are correcting the problem. It’s a lesson learned for me as well though, as when I run Ashbourne 10 I’ll check the medal at the end to make sure it’s the right one and won’t assume.

Next year I’ll  be returning to Thoresby to do the course in reverse as laps for Longhorn half marathon.

Birmingham International Marathon 2017

One week after the Yorkshire marathon it was time already to run another: the inaugural Birmingham International Marathon. It’s not the first time the city of Birmingham have had a marathon. From 1980 to 1985 the city played host to the People’s Marathon. The return of a marathon to England’s second city meant it was a race I had to do, even if it only gave me a week of recovery time after the last marathon.

In the week between marathons I barely ran. I did a slow 3.5 mile run with some walking breaks, and a marathon-paced four mile run later in the week. It seems I didn’t hydrate as well as I should have though as the afternoon of the day before the race I got a migraine that meant I needed to sleep early. Sleeping early meant I didn’t sleep well at night, so wasn’t as fresh as I’d have liked when I got up at 04:30 the next morning.

Originally I’d thought the race was going to start at 09:30, but they eventually split the waves into two start times with the sub-3:45 runners heading off at 08:30. The start and finish were different parts of the city and miles apart too so I’d booked a shuttle to take me from the finish at 07:00. I’d need to be parked up at least 15 minutes before that, depending on where I could find for parking.

I knew people doing the half marathon in the afternoon, but I couldn’t think of anyone I knew doing the full 26.2 miles in the morning. I did however meet up with @albowk and @1SteveMac, and bumped into Paul Addicott who was on pacing duties. He was there a little early as his wave didn’t start until 09:30, but it was nice to meet. I got to the race village myself just before 07:00 as it seems they’d overestimated how long it’d take to get to the race start from the bus stop. I felt I could have had another hour in bed, and left later.

I set off having no real goal in mind, other than the hope of another sub-3:30 marathon.

For the start of the race it was along the running track of Alexander Stadium. Personally I think it’d have been nice to have had a stadium finish, but was still nice to get a bit of track time. Out of the stadium, the course quickly joins the A34 – a bit of dual carriageway to run along to get to the city. This part of the course is a little undulating, but none of the hills (mainly the underpasses and flyovers) are really that bad. At least not at this stage of the race.

There was a fine mist of rain for the first few miles and had to wipe my glasses a number of times to make sure I could see where I was going.

Around mile 4 the course went through the Aston University campus. Being held back by police there were some protesters, though they were far enough away I couldn’t see what was going on. Miles 5-7 were then probably the most boring of them as the course zig-zagged through what is probably the most rundown part of Birmingham.

The first few miles had been tough on my legs, a reminder of last weeks race, but things started to ease off after this. I’d long since overtaken the 3:15 pacer and as my legs eased I thought that maybe I might actually do better than I’d expected.

Just after mile 7 the start of the two lap loop begins. Every step I took on this I’d be repeating, more tired, later. For some of this loop people were setting things up on the side of the course – perhaps not expecting anyone to run passed them until later.

Cannon Hill Park was a nice section of the course, though I found my legs were starting to tire again already, so tried really hard to reign in the pace. After  the park it returns to the road and it looked like later we’d be seeing runners on the other side of the road. This was a long straight section that lasted for almost 3 miles. Views that far in front can be a little depressing, but I found looking down at the road helped here.

So far the loop didn’t seem too bad. Perhaps I could run the entire marathon for a change. No. That wasn’t going to happen. On the way into Bourneville, a place famous for chocolate, they’d sneaked a hill into the course that was a lot of effort to run up. I kept going though. I wanted to finish at least the first lap without walking, but after reaching the top I thought it unlikely I’d manage it a second time.

I was thankful though that I was now passed halfway, and some brief respite with a down hill section passed the Cadburys (formerly Bourneville) factory. At the bottom of that hill it was a return to a road I’d already along in the opposite direction. This time I could see oncoming runners and spotted @albowk!

After that I was concentrating on keeping moving. I really, really wanted to walk, but I also really wanted to finish the first lap without walking. That was enough to keep me going until the “decision point” where I could finally begin the second lap.

On this second lap I soon slowed to a walk once I hit 16 miles, and from that point I accepted that I’d be walking frequently. Sure enough, although there were sections I’d run for longer periods, I did walk extremely frequently.

When I rounded the corner at Bourneville again I didn’t even attempt to run up part of it, I just started walking immediately. I just had no inclination to run up it. The 3:30 pacer passed me a little later, and it didn’t really bother me. I just wanted to finish and didn’t really care what my time was. When I ran Brighton the week after Manchester and Canalathon last year, I’d been far slower. So it wasn’t a complete failure.

What was a failure was that I my goal for a sub-3:15 this year was an impossibility. I’d only made it half way from where I was to where I wanted to be. It’d have to be a goal for 2018 instead.

Knowing this didn’t really motivate me to keep running, but I did find that deciding I wouldn’t walk again until I’d counted slowly to 100 helped. I did actually run for that entire stretch, and started walking as soon as I hit 100. Oops. I’d only got 4 miles left to go, but I didn’t really feel like dangling that carrot again to keep me running.

Finally I reached the decision point again, and this time was very pleased to be going straight on, back towards the city. It was hard going, but I ran as often as I could force myself to but with an uphill finish it was hard work. As I got close to mile 26 I found that my path was blocked though by people crossing the road en masse so had to weave through them. I heard one of the marshals shouting at the pedestrians, “let the runners pass!”. Well, I slowed to a walk to get passed.

I sprinted from the “200 metres” to go sign and finally finished the first Birmingham International Marathon in 3:35:38 in position 565 out of 5202 finishers.

Not a great time or position, but it’s okay. I never expected to do well in this race, but I still think I should have tried harder in Yorkshire last week. In the finishers bag was:

  • Finishers medal,
  • Finishers tee,
  • bottle of water,
  • Crunchy Peanut butter Cliff bar,
  • Rowntree’s Randoms,
  • Sanex,
  • Omega-3,
  • Foil blanket,
  • and a packet of milled flax, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame seeds, and goji berries.

Next weekend I’ll be doing a ten mile race in Thorseby, so hopefully I can recover enough for that before then. This race took more out of my legs than last week, but by the evening they’ve eased enough to keep me hopeful.

Yorkshire Marathon 2017

I’m not really sure what led me to enter this marathon. I like to make sure I have an autumn marathon to do, even though I don’t like speed training in the heat of summer. This time I was training through the summer for big ultra marathons so I had the added incentive to find a marathon to do to see if training for ultras made any difference this time.

Training was going well to start with. I gradually built up to 18 miles, but then I took a two week break to do some 10K races so I could work on my time for those. That’s when training went wrong – the following week I was supposed to run 22 miles in training, but due to needing the loo I didn’t make it passed 16 miles. My taper then lasted two weeks due to having a half marathon race, which didn’t turn out too well either. It was unlikely I was going to be setting a PB, especially with the hills I was expecting in Yorkshire; but I’d give it a good go at getting a sub 3:30.

On the day before the race I drove up to York for a bit of tourism, and to see some friends I’ve not seen for almost a year. I walked around the Minster for a while, quickly saw Nic and Emma, and then I checked in to the hotel. That evening the three of is went for food, so I had the usual pre-marathon meal of spaghetti bolognese. It was a good day, and we even got to visit the Harry Potter shop – The Shop That Must Not Be Named. Was really pleased to have seen them. Emma would be running her first marathon, and I think this was Nic’s fourth – a seasoned pro!

That night things didn’t go according to plan. I couldn’t sleep.

The people in the room next to mine stumbled down the corridor at 2am, with one of them making sounds like he was about to vomit – and the other was shouting “Don’t be a d**k!” at him repeatedly. I think I got a few minutes here and there, but I was awake long before my alarm went off. Oh well, I’ve run after a bad night’s sleep before. It might still be okay.

I got to the Elvington Airfield around 07:30, just before massive queues formed to get in. I took off my #ukrunchat hoodie and headed over to the bus which would take around thirty minutes to get me to the race village. It was a little cold standing around in the race village, and if I’m honest I should probably have used that time to find the loos and locate the start. I didn’t though, instead I waited for the next forty minutes for the #ukrunchat tweet-up.

Although there had been quite a few in the group that was doing this race, only a few of us arrive before 9am. On my way to find the start I did bump into two more though – Darren and Jen, who were getting ready for the race. They’d had a hard time finding the baggage drop as they’d arrived at the other side of the campus and found the signs to be lacking.

It wasn’t really that far to the race start, but it was slow as the people I were following to get there were encountering a bridge that was acting as a bottle neck. Even when signs appeared they weren’t that clear – it said the zone 1 start was straight ahead, but that was zone 5 – I should have gone to the left instead. I did however reach the start pen with about ten minutes to spare.

The race was started by Dickie Bird OBE, a retired cricket umpire. First off were the wheelchair athletes, and then the elite and masses followed on behind.

I was aware that the first bit would be repeated in reverse at the end of the marathon, so made a mental note of the incline on the way down. It may be easy sailing now, but I knew it’d get harder.

My plan had to go for a steady and consistent pace, but due to the downhill it meant my first three miles were all sub-7:00 min/mile pace. Maybe that’d work in my favour though – I’d “banked” 90 seconds of time which would make up for what I knew I’d lose on the eventual uphill.

Just before the second mile the route goes passed the Minster, and then out of Monksgate. This bit had been familiar from the day before’s wanderings. At least I knew it was flat. The crowds were great, and I think in part they may be why for the first 15 miles I continued at a pace that was ahead of my target.

Fairly early on the city is left behind and for the majority of the race after that it is through the countryside and small villages. I didn’t really notice the support as I was concentrating heavily on the running, but it seemed like even the quietest of places had a few people cheering (even if only for Macmillan runners in some places). That’s okay though, I didn’t feel this was a race that needed it as it was pleasant enough.

At mile 5 the ten mile runners would no longer be on the same course as the marathoners, but their start was an hour behind us. We’d got over twenty minutes until they’d be coming through.

At mile 6 I high-fived two vicars, which is not something you can say every day. Further along the course the Archbishop of York was also high-fiving runners.

For a while my stomach didn’t feel great, and was making noises like a steel drum. This subsided, but did come back around mile 17. The miles in-between went by fairly well, and I’d been doing a reasonable job of keeping focused. I’d found that imagining where I’d be on my usual long training run routes was helping a great deal, especially when easy parts of the course matched up with where difficult parts of my training routes would have been.

Of course it’s not exact though – I just was just picturing myself running around Leicester. This was York, and for the most part is considerably hillier. Whenever I felt it was getting tough I slowed the pace down, and then slowly returned to my target pace once a hill had levelled off.

There were a couple of “out and back” sections, and this practice of controlling pace had worked well for the first one, and I thought perhaps I could make my tenth time racing a marathon be the one time I don’t walk. However, on the second “out and back” around miles 17-19 the return journey up hill was enough to finish me. No matter how much I slowed it was still hard work, and eventually I succumbed to the need to walk.

Up until then I’d had one jelly baby every few miles, but had been forgetting to eat some as the miles ticked by. I was however staying hydrated having had a gulp of water at miles 9 and 15. I do wonder if I’d fuelled more whether I’d have managed to hold out along that mile long hill, but I didn’t.

As the end of the hill came into sight, I could also see mile 20, and got running again and found that over the next 6 miles I was managing more running than I expected, although at a slower pace. There were times during these six miles I thought I might just run the remainder of the race without walking, but further walking still crept in there. It’s possibly the best I’ve felt on the last 6 miles of a marathon ever though.

One of the runners had someone cycling alongside him for the last few miles. I overtook him several times, but was overtaken every time I started walking – including in the last mile up the unforgiving hill to the University. I knew it was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

When I got near to the top I forced myself to start running again, and then picked up the pace for the last half mile – I reached 6:40 min/mile with 0.4 miles to go, and then increased my stride so that along the finish straight I could come close to my top speed. I crossed the line running at 4:05 min/mile and then immediately had to stop due to runners that had stopped entirely just passed the finish line.

It was a very tough race towards the end, mostly because of the hills I think. It was a fun race though, and I’m glad I did it. I finished with a time of 3:20:18 (position 304 of 4139 finishers- first 7%) which might not be a PB, but it was better than I’d hoped! For a lot of the race it was looking like I’d got a good chance of 3:11, but I saw that slip further and further away from my grasp. After I’d slipped passed 3:15 I think I lost a lot of interest in keeping going.

At the finish you can grab a bottle of water, and will then be passed a bag containing a few goodies, before they hand you your finishers medal. At the end of this I had a quick lay down on the ground before taking a look at what was in the bag:

  • Finishers tee,
  • ASDA Caramel chew,
  • ASDA Nutty bar,
  • High5 Energy Gel,
  • ASDA orange energy drink,
  • ASDA Sports Nutrition Protein bar (Cookies and cream flavour),
  • ASDA Cashew, Raisin & Cherry shot,
  • ASDA Strawberry cables.

It’s understandable most of these were ASDA branded goodies – they were the principal sponsor for this race.

After the race I got to catch-up with Gen Huss who had been running the 10 miler. She didn’t get the result she’d hoped for, but I think considering the course elevation she did really well. I also heard that Nic and Emma did really well – which was very pleasing!

Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017

If you’ve read my previous blog posts then you might know that I’d got a few ambitious goals for 2017:

  • sub-19 5K,
  • sub-40 10K,
  • sub-89 Half Marathon,
  • 3:15 marathon,
  • and to complete my first 100K event.

My first attempt at breaking the half marathon goal was off the back of a minor niggle that had resulted in reduced training at the start of the year, which then led into a marathon PB – but missing the goal I’d set. Over half of the year had passed by the time I ticked off my first goal – completing 100K at Race to the Stones in July. It’d been a tough race, but I hoped it’d help me work on the remainder of my goals.

I unofficially broke sub-19 in an un-timed race just before Race to the Stones, but I’d not yet been able to get it as an official time. A couple of parkruns later and I’d got my parkrun time down close to my 5K PB, but still hadn’t managed sub-19. It was time to move on and start focusing on building up for a marathon once more. I could always go back to working on the 5K after my other races were out the way. I got a couple of long runs done, and then managed to get sub-40 in a 10K during races two weeks running. The first of these had put me well on the way to sub-39 as well.

The week after these two races I did a 10.1 mile training run averaging 6:41 min/mile pace which if I’d maintained the pace for another three miles would have gotten me a sub-89 time (in fact sub-87 was in sight of that!).

My hopes were now high that I’d be able to tick off another of my goals at Robin Hood Half, but a failed 22 mile run (where I only got to 16 miles for reasons I won’t go into) put this in doubt. For the third year running, during the week before the race I found myself surrounded by people with colds and I was concerned I’d get one before the race. There were points where I was convinced I was getting a sore throat.

On race day I got to the Embankment for 08:15, about 20-25 minutes later than I would have had I not got lost on the way due to the bright sun being so low it was making it difficult to read road signs. I had 75 minutes until the start of the race, and only thirty minutes until the planned #ukrunchat meet-up so after a quick walk around I went for my warm-up run.

Half-way through the warm-up I passed Sherie and Scott, so picked up the pace and caught back up with them on their way to the meeting point. I waited there with them for others to turn up. I noticed it was getting warm already, almost enough to make me sweat and my throat was dry already. It was looking like we might not get the cool weather that had been forecast.

DKeT-SUW4AA_edM.jpg

Photo by @sheriamore1

It got to 09:00 and Amy hadn’t been able to find us so I went off looking for her and her sister. After ten minutes I gave up looking as I was running out of time to join the toilet queue before the race.

I decided I’d wait in the queue until 09:20, but was nowhere near the front so thought I’d give it another five minutes. The queue just wasn’t moving so I gave up and had to run for the starting line – hoping I wouldn’t regret it later.

I got to the yellow starting pen with less than a minute to spare before the race started. The pen was a lot busier than I remember it from previous years and was a slow start. Once out onto the main road it started to ease up a bit, but I found it difficult to get up to my target pace.

One runner ran straight in front of me without looking and almost tripped me up; I shouted “jeez” to make sure he knew what he’d done. He looked over his should and just made a “pfft” sound. I think that’s the big difference between the pens – the closer you are to the front, the more likely it is to encounter inconsiderate runners. It’s not a blanket rule of course, there were many considerate runners who would also make sure others are doing okay. There’s always the odd few though, and it seems I encounter one in about 30-40% of the races I do.

The first two miles went more or less to plan – both of them putting me on target for a sub-87, but then I encountered the hills. The hills start at around 2.4 miles and carry on until 3.2 miles before a sharp descent. At the pace I wanted, going up those hills in the heat that had risen to 20C with 71% humidity was too much. I was ahead of the 90 minute pacer, but I found myself walking long enough to be overtaken by him.

I overtook the 90 minute pacer again on the descent and then stayed ahead for a while. I grabbed a water pouch from the station at mile 3 and squeezed a few drops of water into my mouth. I hate those pouches, but as they sponsor the race each year they have no choice but to use them. Unfortunately I couldn’t pour any of the water over me to cool down as I might have down with a bottle. I couldn’t really get enough water out to drink before I discarded it.

Before I reached Wollaton Park I was walking again, and the 90 minute pacer had overtaken me. I didn’t want to lose sight of him so I pushed on when I could, but it was a lot warmer through the Park than it ever has been on previous years I’ve been through there in a race. This area was well supported, and to be honest I think the majority of the race was, but here I noticed it the most as I struggled up the hill through the park.

I’d got a few jelly babies stashed away in my Flipbelt to use mid-race, but with how slow I was going due to the frequent overheating, I didn’t both eating any of them. Even by the end of the race they remained untouched.

After leaving the park, the route headed back towards the road we’d run down before so we could run back up it in the opposite direction. I started to look out for people I know in the oncoming stream of runners, but had a complete mental block of who was there. I was sure I’d seen @designrach – but it couldn’t have been as she wasn’t running this one!

The course then does an “out and back” with a tight turn at the end; one of the ones from last year I think. By the time I reached one hour of running I was at around 9 miles. The 90 minute pacer was still in sight, but I knew at this point that if I wanted to still manage sub-90 I’d need to maintain a pace much faster than I’d prepared for. In this heat I wasn’t going to attempt it though. My lips had dried out and were becoming sore, and it felt like you could cook bacon on me.

When I got to 10 miles it felt like a bit of a milestone – as I knew I’d not long PB’d at that distance, but I was already 4 minutes behind that time and I was walking. Over the miles that remained I walked a lot for each mile – it became like a slow interval session where each split was incredibly short.

As the train station came into view I knew from memory that it wasn’t that far left to go. It was far enough though. With about 0.7 miles left to go I saw Sherie on the corner so gave her a high five as I passed. It was probably about the seventh one I’d given as after 8 miles I decided it didn’t matter if I expended the energy – I wasn’t going to be using it.

Not long after, as I passed through the gates into the Victoria Embankment, I started to walk again. Then I realised Sherie was running along the pavement and shouted at me to keep going. So I did. At least until I’d crossed the start line again anyway.

I walked again briefly and then decided I needed to run the entire grass section. I wanted a sprint finish, and figured that with all the rain we’d had over the past few days that if I went for that last “kick” from a walking start that I might just slip and faceplant in the grass. I pushed on to the last corner and then picked up speed immediately after so I could sprint at at least a 4min/mile pace.

On the way out they passed me my medal so I threw it around my neck as I collected a water bottle. I was then passed an empty carrier bag, not sure why, and the a finishers tee (first time this year!), and a Boost chocolate bar.

I’d finished in 94:14 so was a lot slower than I’d intended. I’d started the race thinking I might just get an 87 minute time, but was hoping for at least sub-89. In the end I failed at this goal for the second time this year, and for the second year running. I’d like to get an 85 minute half in the next couple of years, and I think to manage that I need to run another half marathon this year – otherwise I won’t be racing a half again until Reading in March 2018.

I think it’s okay to fail, it’s how we learn to be better, but it’s important to keep trying. This race was warm, it was humid, and it was hilly. It’s not a great combination for a PB attempt, and I heard afterwards that a lot of people were struggling in the conditions. I hate to think how many would have had to DNF because of the conditions today.

My friend Gen Huss was up in Edinburgh doing a half there and encountered similar conditions as well. She did of course run faster than me, but then her training has been really strong. We’ll hopefully get to race each other again soon.

My time still got me a finishing place of 264 out of 6,149 half marathon finishers. It put me in the first 4.3% which I guess isn’t too bad really. Maybe that’s one positive I can take away from the race. Oh well, onto the next.