Cool, Calm & Collected. That was my event moniker in the days leading up to this year’s CCC race (101km, 6100m+ following the Tour du Mont Blanc route from Courmayeur in Italy around to Chamonix in France). “Yes, rest! Read, meditate, walk and look forward to it. You’re due a good Alpine performance and I’ve got my senses tingling that it’ll be this one” read the message from Jamie, an old running friend from the Lakes and now living in Chamonix, who would be crewing for me on the day. I had to agree. Some thought I wouldn’t be competitive again 5 weeks after a 100 miler and others tried to talk me into choosing one or the other. I nearly didn’t toe the start line of the Lakeland 100 this year in favour of making the most of my time in the alps with a stronger build-up to the CCC (I haven’t entered next year’s Lakeland 100…). I knew in my own body a week after that race that things were different this year. I was surprised how well I bounced back, so I just kept a low profile in the build-up to this race, headphones on, staring at the ceiling. To those who asked if I had a time or position in mind, I’d answer with a smile: “Not really, it’s ultra-running, anything can happen”... I have a long history of disastrous European performances. I’d almost resigned myself to forever being a bigger fish in the smaller bowl of UK trail running. I sat down after the TDS last year and tried to get my head around what had gone wrong for me in the past and what it would take to be truly competitive over here, amongst the world’s best. Things are a lot different abroad and it’s difficult to adequately prepare both body and mind for the challenges of race day by training in the UK. I had done my homework and couldn’t think of any stone I’d left unturned in the lead up to this race, having taken the plunge to move out here when the opportunity arose in June. After a turbulent few days wondering if the route would be changed in light of the bad incoming weather, on the start line I was ready for whatever events unfolded on the day. Things felt different now and I knew I wasn’t kidding myself. From my mountain bike racing days, I know the difference between telling yourself you can do something and knowing you can. You’d be forgiven for thinking I held back early on and paced it well. At the top of the second main climb, Gran col Ferret, I was 36th. But the reality of the situation tells a different story. Only an hour in I was hurting badly. I found the initial pace on the first few road kilometres manageable and was running with the front group, heart rate high but well clear of threshold. Once the gradient kicked up and the poles came out however, I was hoping to settle down into a more manageable effort. But I just couldn’t seem to get going, heart rate often beginning with 17-, for an effort I’d usually see a happier 16-. I even began struggling with asthma, something that used to plague me during my junior mountain bike racing days, but have since learnt to control and was sweating heavily in the warm conditions. After loosening his shoelaces, eventual winner Hayden strides past with seeming ease. Relieved to reach the top with UK runner Harry Jones I’m able to back off a bit and let others fly past me, hammering their quads. ‘Just run your own race’ I think, reminding myself to keep my effort, nutrition and hydration in check from mile one. Too often I’ve fallen victim of competing with others too early on and fallen foul of my efforts later. Not today. A niggle in my right Achilles that flared up a few days before the race got a good working on the rutted singletrack to Refuge Bertone so I backed off, aiming to get to the next major climb in good shape, conceding that I would always lose time to others on the more runnable sections. Several passed me during the next hour or so, but I was happy to let them go. There was a long way to go to Chamonix. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC Leaving La Fouly after the long descent to get there, we were faced with a seemingly endless road diversion that cut out most of the lovely singletrack to Praz de Fort which had suffered from a recent landslide. Two others catch me and despite trying to run hard I was now in a sorry state, a debilitating stitch adding to the despair. I thought of my friend Will behind me and how he’d probably love ‘positively wind milling’ down this, as he would put it. I wish I felt the same. I have two DNF’s to my name and I’m ashamed to admit it now but I was contemplating collecting a third at the upcoming Champex Lac aid station and throwing in the towel half way. The body wasn’t so bad but the mind was unravelling and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand the downward spiral. I reasoned that it may be good to ‘save the legs’ for the upcoming Ben Nevis Ultra in two weeks and tried to think of an empathetic Facebook post to rationalise my choice. Maybe I was just destined to never cut it out here, despite my best efforts and will. But then I ate a bit, the trail kicked up, hiking poles came out and all was well with the world again. Phew. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC It was a relief to meet Jamie and get my first solid feed down and take a few minutes to rest and regroup mentally. After a brief mandatory kit check I left in much better spirits, catching a few runners along the lake front with a friendly Irish guy called Paddy, who lives in California. He was pushing the pace but after several hours I started to feel normal and could hang with him. ‘Cruise the climbs, hammer the downhills’ we agreed as we caught up to a group in front before the next steep section. We drifted up into the cloud, the poles came out again and immediately I felt the pace lull. My cycling background means power hiking will always be my forte and as much as part of me wanted to hang with the group and stick to Paddy’s plan, I came here to race and getting to the finish line as fast as I could would mean making the most of my strengths. I saw a Hoka jersey leading the group as I passed. It was Harry. “I had a feeling I might see you again”, which I didn’t say to rub it in. A great guy I have a lot of admiration for, doing a lot for the scene and I was hoping he’d have a top-10 run too, but his body language told me otherwise. I fed off knowing I had broken the top-20. From here there are three large climbs and descents home and I started to feel really strong, putting time quickly into those I passed and trying to be sensible down the slippery descents to maintain my gains. And that’s how the rest of the race went over the last three climbs that divide the second half: Poles out and push hard uphill making sure not to overcook it, music on, focus, run where feasible, hydrate and consume liquid calories, 100mg caffeine, get to top, stash poles and iPod, concentrate, 80% beans downhill, try and eat something solid, see Jamie at aid station, restock and get real food in, repeat… Leaving Vallorcine in 14th and managing to run all the way to Col des Montets, as I had practiced during training on tired legs, Jamie tells me there are four guys ahead that all look tired, that I’m stronger than they are. A primal switch is flicked and I’m now in hunting mode, no longer the prey. “If I was you I’d be focusing on a top 20 finish and being content with that. Maybe, maybe, top ten but it might not be realistic at this point in your career”… Don’t believe everything you’re told. I stuck to my rhythm and after such a rough start am now gripped by frenzy, raw with emotion and prepared to fight for every damn minute until I cross that wretched finish line. Immersed in the ultra-race experience that I have craved for several years, running the race I knew I could run, the outskirts of Chamonix appear through the mist below. The course had been rerouted to a lower-level variant to shelter slower competitors from the forecast bad weather. I’d heard my housemate complain about how technical one section is and he wasn’t wrong. But there’s no holding back now and I pick off three runners who seem riddled with apathy as I wince my way down the gnarly, rooted path, revelling in its audacity on legs that are now feeling the effects of over 5000m of descending. The last of the four takes some effort to catch. As they come closer into view I make out a Hoka jersey and my heart sinks. Damn I was hoping he’d make the podium. It’s Jorge Maravilla, 2:21 marathon runner and the ‘Happiest Man in Ultrarunning’ according to his website. It’s true! The son of an El Salvadorian migrant and a humble guy with an interesting story, we met while recceing the CCC route with fellow Brit Tom Evans (who finished a stellar 4th) and spent a memorable day chatting and enjoying the scenery in beautiful weather. “Hey Mike!” he beamed with a smile when he saw me approaching. I was almost embarrassed as I passed, did I stop for a chat or push on?! I knew he’d understand I was on my own journey and didn’t have much energy for conversation, so continued grunting my way up the winding trail ahead. One last push to Flegere, catching another runner on my way and I’m surprised by the lack of response from those I passed. Broken men. Go out as hard as they do and you’ll pay for it later, maybe my difficult start was a blessing in disguise. I rushed through the checkpoint and took a few swigs of Coke from the bottle (sorry!). ‘Go for broke’ the timing plan said so that’s just what I did, taking the risk not to bother with my headlamp and squinting my way through the dim wooded sections, catching one last runner during my graceless tumble back down towards the tarmac of Chamonix. The damp, miserable evening had all but consumed the town, but couldn’t dim the fire burning bright within, nor could the deafening crowds drown out the voice in my head: ‘Good work Mike, about time!’. A European performance that I feel does my modest potential some justice at last. I stumbled over the finish line to my name being announced on the PA, amused by the thought of how many people might recognise it. 8th place. The culmination of 62 miles and five turbulent years of anxiety, setbacks and perseverance distilled into one single moment. Collapsing on the photographer’s stage, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Jamie keeping a watch over me, grinning. I stared back towards the finishing straight that I just ran down and did the same. [gallery link="file" size="medium" ids="253,256,257"] online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC Gratitude: Jamie for crewing and perking me up when I needed it most, Scott at PhysioBikeFit for getting my body ready to race, Likey’s for the express delivery of shoes when nowhere else had them in stock, Robbie and Mimmi for helping me out and showing me the alpine good life, sports nutritionist Ben Price and TORQ Fitness for the race nutrition and advice, James at Centurion Running for the continued support via Petzl, Lyon Equipment and Drymax Socks (still no blisters!), Will for sharing the journey and finally my old man, the Chester Whoppers and The Sesh for always keeping it unreal and anyone that ever believed in me, I’m starting to do the same… Training between Lakeland 100 & CCC. Week 1: Focus on recovery. Massage two days after, cycling, eating well, ample sleep, yoga and restoration. Attend friend’s birthday party in Coniston the weekend after. Laugh lots. Week 2: Back to regular running on flat trail. Focus on gym work to restore muscles to anabolic state. 3x sessions. First two focusing on general concentric movement, 3rd more emphasis on single-leg eccentric overloading to prepare quads for alps again. Very sore the next day! Cycling to aid recovery, no running on gym days. Week 3: Back to Chamonix. 5x back-to-back lactate threshold sessions building up to 8min work interval/2min rest x 4 to accumulate 30mins in target work zone. All efforts carried out on steep (>250m/mile) trails, running with hiking poles for race specificity and to reduce physical impact. It's called block periodisation. Cycling and walk to river for a dip most days for active recovery. Week 4: Couple of easy days to absorb intensity work, then longer runs culminating in CCC race route recce to Col des Montets over two days. Week 5: Taper with a couple of shorter threshold workouts running gentle gradients (5min work interval/2 mins rest x3. Rest, meditation and yoga to unwind. Break from social media. Week 4 & 5 included heat adaptation workouts on rest days: 40min run in heat of day wearing base layer, 5x 8inhalation strides at end. Straight into hot (40°C) shower/bath for up to 25mins. Equipment Used:
  • Salomon S-LAB Sense Ultra Shoes.
  • Salomon S-LAB Sense 5L Pack & Pole Quiver.
  • Salomon Sense Tee (racing red, naturally), Boxers & 6M Shorts.
  • Drymax Trail Running Crew Socks.
  • Suunto Spartan Ultra GPS watch & heart rate monitor.
  • Gipron Mont Blanc Carbon 125cm Poles.
  • Small ziplock bag to carry electrolytes, caffeine & iPod shuffle, stashed in boxer pockets.
Mandatory Equipment:
  • Salomon Bonatti Pro waterproof jacket & pants.
  • Salomon S-LAB DWR windproof, stashed in easily accessible pocket at back (didn’t use).
  • Salomon S-LAB gloves stored in easily accessible side pockets (used on Gran col Ferret).
  • Odlo ‘Light’ long sleeve base layer & Next women’s tights cut into leggings.
  • Salomon Speed Bob Hat, TORQ Fitness ‘Buff’ & latex gloves to pass waterproof requirement.
  • Hydrapak folding cup, 2x Hydrapak 500ml Ultra Flasks.
  • Ziplock pouch containing foil blanket, self-adhesive bandage, whistle, mini phone, two Peztl e+LITE lights (removed whistles) & spare batteries.
  • All carried in an Exped 3L XS lightweight drybag.
  • Picked up Petzl NAO+ at Vallorcine (didn’t use).
Nutrition consisted of TORQ Vanilla energy drink, TORQ energy bars, gels (limited edition summer shandy flavour is the bomb!) & fruit puree pouches. If you wanna beat me you'll need to drop some cash at: Likeys, Centurion Running & TORQ ;) 
My relationship with Trans Gran Canaria began in Autumn 2014, shortly after leaving my cushy engineering job at Siemens. I moved into a hostel workers room in Elterwater, deep in the heart of the Lake District, got myself a coach and began training full-time. My first goal was Trans Gran Canaria in late February, well-timed to work towards though the dark, wet winter months. That race ended in disaster and to this day remains the most humbling, suffer-laden night and day on two feet I’ve ever, and probably will ever, experience. My enthusiasm about my new life as a full-time athlete more than got the better of me on the first climb whilst amongst the front runners, and blissfully ignoring my heart rate monitor which was displaying numbers starting with 19. I went with my instincts, excited by my new surroundings amongst the world elite of ultrarunning. Plummeting down the first steep descent with similar vigour, as I reached the bottom my quads were completely destroyed, a mass of fibres pulled apart from the eccentric loading forces that I had failed to adequately train against during the preceding months. Despite the pain, with each step feeling like a butcher was taking a tenderiser to my thigh, I persevered and crossed the line in under 20 hours, resolving to one day return to lay rest to my Canarian demons. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC Fast forward two years and I find myself on the start line of the shorter 82km ‘Advanced’ race, still on the prowl for my first international top-10. This time with a far more wise and experienced head atop my shoulders. I feel relaxed and in control, knowing the route ahead and benefiting from having spent a relaxing few days with old friends on the island, seeing sights and enjoying their company. I block out the familiar European rigmarole on the start line with some music from my iPod and we’re soon off into the darkness. On the horizon: a second chance to redeem myself over the island’s harsh topography. The early mile’s slip by smoothly. I feel very strong, but this time let the front runners go, reigning in my competitive urges. Over the first 10 miles or so I find myself running with ex West Highland Way race course record holder Paul Giblin and GB international orienteer Hector Haines. A lull in the pace coincides with a patch of weakness for me after passing through Teror and Hector pushes on ahead. As we start to climb again I pull away from Paul and start to run alone. I do so for most of the race, hoping those ahead will wilt from their earlier pace in heat of the day. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC I start to increase my effort on the ascent to the distinctive Roque Nublo and on the brief out-and-back stretch make eyes with Hector, now in a podium position. I myself am being closely pursued though and rush through the Garanon aid station, with now a mostly downhill marathon between me and the finish. My glutes are sore but everything else is holding up well and I’m able to really attack the next descent, picking off two competitors and grateful for my footwear of choice in comparison with that of two years ago. I make a slight error leaving Tunte but soon gather my bearings and on the next steep switch backed climb spot several runners in my race ahead. It’s getting late in the race now and I know their pace will only increase as the vie for podium positions heats up. I count a bouncing Hector to be about 10 minutes ahead of me and as I top out of the climb realise catching him will no longer be on the cards. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC I find it fascinating that as the next descent begins, so too my frame of mind and shortly after my body. Cramp in my hamstrings and a stitch stop me in my stride. I do my best to navigate the situation and after a short respite can push on to Ayagaures, though notice I am no longer attacking the descents as I was. I keep checking over my shoulder to see no one and accept holding my 7th place may be the best I can manage today. Negotiating the horrendous riverbed section as best I can, I pass several 125km race runners before hitting the final road/drainage section. A quick glance behind and I spot someone with a green number. My heart sinks. I’m determined not to return to old apathetic habits and resolve to fight until the finish line. I run hard along the uneven drainage riverbed and hold our gap at maybe 50 metres, if that. I keep checking but his distance doesn’t change, unwilling to yield to my increase in effort. Bastard! I run straight through the last checkpoint, kindly declining the dried sausage or whatever was enthusiastically dangled in my face and commit myself to holding my 7th place. I realised after leaving Tunte earlier that from then on, the course has been altered since I was last here and didn’t bother to recce the last few miles. My naivety soon catches up with me and whilst in my fraught state of mind, I emerge from the second drainage riverbed unable to immediately spot a course marker. I run off course until I see a couple of spectators waving me in the right direction, soon followed by my nemesis rival casually trotting past at the same unrelenting pace. online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC 8th it is then, or so I think as I then spot another runner in my race coming into focus. ‘You must be joking?!’ I almost laugh before once again winding up into a desperate fight for forward momentum, arms flailing all over the shop to keep our distance at maybe 70 meters. I manage to extend it slightly over what is the most awful last kilometre of ultra I’ve ever endured and just about manage to run up the finishing ramp (who’s idea was that?!), fling my hands in the air and keel over, arms on knees panting like a dog, trying desperately not to overheat. It’s amazing what depths a competitive instinct can push you to. A few hours pass and I’m back to a stable condition to watch my friends finish before heading home, not before Tim carries out his ultra puke routine by the roadside. Poor lad! The next couple of days are a write-off, but I’m more than happy to enjoy the sights and sounds of our little spot up in the hills. On the last evening, Pete, Hazel and I set off up to Roque Nublo and savour one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever admired. A fitting end to the trip and an evening I’ll remember for many years to come with a smile, now happy to have settled my debts with this island. Now, about that 125km race… online coaching ultra trail mountain running UTMB CCC