Fire & Ice

I can’t remember why I signed up, but I can remember Simon’s face when I told him I had entered a 250km self-sufficient foot race in Iceland.  I think he was as curious as me about whether I’d make it.  He knows that my problem isn’t crossing the finish line, it’s getting to the start line in the first place.  There are good and bad points to always finishing, the downside is normally about the physical state I’ll be in afterwards.  
I’d reluctantly bailed on starting a race earlier in the year to give my body time to recover from an injury properly before starting training for the Fire & Ice.  This made the race even more important than ever and I felt like I was starting from behind for my preparation.  Bearing this in mind, Simon built the plan for 18 weeks so I could get into it at a slightly easier pace and build up more gradually than I would normally lead into an event.  Based on his experience of my training & performance, he knew what my limitations were for consecutive days’ training so the plan included specific days to focus on cross training; this would keep my fitness levels high and minimise the effects of repeated impact from running in the early weeks so I could still increase my strength & endurance without risking injury too soon.

 

The structure of having a plan put together in advance works really well for me.  I’m motivated by knowing what I need to do, it helps keep me focused if I know what I’ve got to do each day and stick to it.  I guess there’s a fine line between being highly driven and being a bit obsessive.  I’ve got a whiteboard at home that I use to mark up exactly what training I’ve got to do each day.  It shows me 4 weeks ahead so I can see what’s coming up and keeps me focused.  I’ve found it hard in the past to deviate from my plan to the extent that I let it dictate the rest of my life.  Being completely inflexible regardless of what the rest of the day presented (work, seeing friends, studying) meant that I easily got into a cycle of training at the expense of every other part of my life.  This time round, I had a long weekend of full rest built in every 4 weeks.  It doesn’t sound much and the main point of this strategy is to avoid physical burn out and ensure maximum effort is achievable during long-term training.  That said, the bonus for me with this also meant that I didn’t lose touch with normal life quite so easily and I learned to really look forward to my 2 days off!

It might not seem like it now but I assure you we’ve had a seriously good, hot, long summer.  I think I only got wet once throughout my entire 18-week plan.  Some days it was so hot the temptation to just run in my pants was almost overwhelming.  I remember one occasion I was later getting out there than normal, it was a weekend day and a scorcher.  I am rubbish in the heat unless all I’ve got to do is sit on the beach and chill.  I had +20 miles to do and stupidly took my shirt off and just ran in my shorts and bra.  It wouldn’t have been so bad except the rubbing of my backpack on my shoulders meant that a good few days’ worth of carpet burn jokes followed me around the gym and I was too embarrassed to wear almost ½ the tops in my wardrobe for over a fortnight.  I also ran out of water that day with about 5 miles still to go so it was a harsh lesson in body management.  Even though it wouldn’t be hot in Iceland it was a good reminder that I needed to take hydration seriously and should have planned better to protect myself.  It was after then that I invested in a bottle of iodine to treat the rubbing and toughen my skin up a bit.  I might have looked like a surgical fugitive doing an impression of Houdini trying to awkwardly dab yellow tonic on my back in the club changing rooms but it was the only way. 


Ultra distance running is generally a solo sport and for the most part, I love this about it.  I can’t beat just pulling on my trainers and heading off onto the woodland trails and I’m lucky to have this right on my doorstep; it's good thinking time and a kind of therapy from a bad day at work and it gives me a chance to work through other stuff that’s on my mind.  That said, there were times during my recent training that I felt quite isolated and lonely.  Whilst I like to run on my own sometimes, there are always days when I look forward to running with friends.  As the miles ramped up I lost the company of friends to run with me, partly because they just weren’t up for doing the distances but also because I’d be out on the trails before 5am to get the miles in before work and let’s face it, friend, or not, who wants to do that just for fun!  I still think early morning training is the best, though, I get the best part of the day to myself, it’s like the world hasn’t quite woken up yet and some of the sights are beautiful.


Around week 12 of my plan I was bordering on burnout and got pretty fed up.  I was sick of the routes I was running, even the ducks on the canal got on my wick.  My music got on my nerves, less Sash, more Crash.  I think I’d basically lost the love for what I loved doing the most and I got into a downwards spiral of demotivation.  I knew I was tired and needed to rest but because I felt my recent miles were a poor quality I still found it hard to actually stay off my feet and relax, worried that I was putting myself back and wasting all the hard work I’d already done.  My sleep pattern was all over the place, I couldn’t get more than about 3 or 4 hours straight, I was half asleep at work but couldn’t drop off once I got to bed and then I was up and out the door at 4:30am to start all over again.  I had a good talk with Simon about how I was feeling and what was going on and he helped me put things into perspective.  We checked my nutrition was right, talked about how to improve my sleeping and he focussed me on the things I could do to easily change how I felt for the better.  I planned a week off to recuperate and get my head straight and body back on track.  It felt wrong to be “lazy” for a week but it was the right thing to do.  Once I was back I felt much stronger and ready to take on the final stage of training.

The last few weeks before a big event are always tough, I know I over-think things and start putting pressure on myself trying to think of what I still need to do.  It took me some time to appreciate that there’s much more to the last few weeks than I realised.  The focus needed to be on making sure my body was as strong as possible.  Lots of the right food, maximum hydration, plenty of sleep and building confidence is far more important than any more training.  Once you’re in the last week there’s nothing more

physically that can be done.  I became really protective of myself too and got nervous about any activity that might have had even a small risk to injury.  I was invited to join a friend learning how to snowboard….are you kidding!  I also got really rude about mixing with people with even the slightest of sniffles.  I caught a cold just 10 days before I was due to fly out and doped myself up to the eyeballs to try and shake it off.  I’m sure it was psychosomatic in part but it still threw me into a state of lock down avoiding anyone who wasn’t in top health, I couldn’t stand the thought of blowing the last 18 weeks on a stuffy nose.  I ran just once during the last 2 weeks, joining my endurance squad at Burton AC for one of the weekend sessions.  I’d missed training with them and really enjoyed their company that morning.  Everything felt easy going and fun again.  Just a jog out and a couple of sprints and I felt on top form, fastest I reckon I’d run in ages, it was perfect to pick up on such a high. 

PART 2 - RACE

Having tapered off my training for the 2 weeks before the race, all of a sudden I had anything from 2 – 6 hours spare every day.  I spent most of this catching up on studies (Sports Psychology – I think I’m my own case study on this one….!) and then the rest of the time packing, and unpacking, and repacking again and again.  Didn’t matter that I’d ticked off every item on the mandatory kit list before it went in the pack, I’d still doubt if I’d put something in there and have to check and check again.  It was quite an annoying habit because there really wasn’t any space for anything I might have forgotten anyway.  I bought all my snacks in the supermarket at the same time and when I unloaded my basket of jelly babies, squeezy condensed milk, banana malt loaf and peanut M&Ms onto the checkout I must have looked like I had an eating disorder.  I filled a whole evening weighing out daily snack bags (not before I’d got rid of all the yellow and orange jelly babies though) and measuring out individual bags of 2:1 recovery powder, a bit like a drug dealer portions up cocaine I suppose.

 

There was a lot of travelling before we got to the start line.  Once I arrived at Reykjavik there was a transfer to a small domestic airport and then another 40-minute flight north to Akureyri.  This was the race HQ and I was given a medical assessment and had a kit check.  I found out I was the only Brit competing and one of just 2 women, the other, Freda who I met the following day was a local Icelandic ultra-runner so she stayed at home that night.  This meant I was given an apartment to myself, something the organisers apologised for but actually suited me just right.  I’m not into small talk and had very little to say being so nervous.  I was knackered from 16 hours travelling so it was good to just suit myself and get my head down.

The next day we spent travelling in 4x4s to the heart of Iceland’s national park and the foot of the Vatnajokull glacier.  The weather forecast was snow at the start line.  We arrived at a camp of blue tents at the foot of a volcano and a great display of national flags.  1 for each of the nationalities entered in the race – Morocco, Kenya, Switzerland, Singapore, India, Canada, USA, Spain, UK and Iceland.  I loved that the Union Flag was there just for me.  The race medic joked that I had “the hopes of a nation on my shoulders”….he was only taking the rip but I was really proud to be there. 
It started to rain at about 9pm that night by which time I was already in my sleeping bag.  Within hours I regretted being so tight with weight in my back pack and wished I’d packed a roll mat so I made use of my extra layers and my own full-size union flag was a good enough pillow.  No surprise, I hardly slept but I didn’t really feel tired.  It rained all night and although I know very well that weather always sounds way worse from inside the tent than it ever actually is outside the tent it was still tough getting out the following morning.  The race start was delayed by 2 hours because the conditions were considered too bad, not really too bad for racing but just too bad for hanging around outside for the race briefing and first-day instructions.  No complaints on that!
Stage 1 of 6 started with a 5km loop up round the base of the glacier and then headed out northwards.  I spectacularly fell over my own feet about 7km in and remember hoping this wasn’t a sign of things to come over 250km!  The biggest problem was getting up off the ground, I had a completely screwed weight load with my backpack so I rolled around for a bit and finally got the leverage to heave myself up.  Very funny.  My knees were battered but also frozen cold so thankfully didn’t hurt at all.  The poor student volunteer medic at the first checkpoint nearly had a fit at the state of the blood all over my legs when she saw me run up.  She patched me up ok but the dressings washed off in the rain and I finished that day by falling down a sand bank into an icy cold river within about ½ km of the finish line.  Very unfunny.


The whole week seemed to merge into a long cycle of eating, running, eating, sleeping, and then it all started again.  Eating was nothing but a simple need to refuel, there was nothing enjoyable about the dehydrated mixtures we added hot water too.  They didn’t taste bad, it was just a chore to eat the same thing all the time.  I couldn’t be bothered to clean my spork properly one night and my porridge the next day tasted like oriental rice.  Nice.  I craved the crunchy fresh juicy bite of an apple, so much so that I was given 2 on the finish line at the end of a 6th stage to celebrate.  Every day I’d start with 800 calorie porridge/muesli and a 450 calorie hot chocolate drink.  Then throughout the day I’d snack on jelly babies & caffeine shot blocks.  When I finished each stage I’d neck a recovery shake and drink a flask of sweet lemon tea with hydration tabs added.  Once I’d changed clothes, warmed up and relaxed a bit I’d have an 800 calorie pasta or rice dinner and rehydrate by drinking as much as I could without stitching myself up by needing to get up in the wind & rain in the middle of the night to pee.  Normally in a long drop or a trench so I gave thanks to squat jumps and solid quads!
There wasn’t much opportunity to get to know other competitors but there was still a closeness that developed between us, from just a few knowing smiles at the end of the day or a shared stumble to the toilet in the dark.  Mohamed (the eventual winner) woke every morning and shouted “where is the fire?  Always with the ice, where is the fire!” he was always cold and hated the bad weather.  He quoted that this was the toughest race of his career (something I was quite chuffed to hear knowing that he was a professional sponsored ultra-runner and coach who’d won MDS 5 times).
The toughness for me is hard to describe.  It wasn’t about the weather, I far more enjoy running in the cold and wet than I do in the heat.  I’ve also raced with a backpack before and the weight didn’t bother me at all, my physical training had been perfect.  I didn’t even mind the camping and repetitive nature of the race.  Last year I’d had a pretty good debut multi-stage event and had also spent time camping on ice on the glaciers being put through my paces by mountain rescue so it wasn’t even as if the conditions were that harsh for me.  What did haunt me was the darkness of the scenery.  Iceland is volcanic and for the most part in the national park, there is very little greenery.  The sky was grey.  The ground was grey.  The sand was grey.  The rocks were grey.  It was depressing, completely desolate and the same in every direction.  We followed little pink flags that marked the route ahead and that was the only colour in the picture.  It reminded me of what was left by “the nothing” in the film The Never Ending Story.  Every now and then I’d follow the flags down through some sand dunes and all of a sudden I’d be in a hidden valley with green wash lands and streams as if it was an oasis.  These moments really lifted my spirits and I was happy to get my feet wet running through the streams if it just meant a sign of life for a few minutes.


Reflecting now on some of the days I felt pretty low, it just proves how endurance sport is so dependent on psychological strength.  I couldn’t have been better prepared physically and that meant I had confidence in my ability going into the race.  What I hadn’t prepared for was the solitude alongside tiredness and pain.  I’d doped myself up on codeine and ibuprofen from about half way through the week and towards the end, it was doing little but taking the edge off the pain in my knee and shin.  I felt quite isolated without any contact with anyone, there was no-one to text at the end of the day for reassurance and I was surprised at how much I missed the support I had at home.  I felt quite hopeless at times, not ever thinking that I wouldn’t finish, I’m pretty good at just sucking it up.  More like I was worried for when I got back and what damage was I doing by carrying on.  Not sure why that didn’t make me stop, though, guess that’s another case study altogether.

 The weather conditions had meant the course route changed daily, mainly to avoid rivers that had become too deep or fast flowing to cross on foot.  This also meant that the long stage was bumped back to stage 5 rather than 4 so although we had a few more miles in our legs by the time we got there, it also meant that once we’d done the long one there was just 1 more run to do before the finish.  The plan is that you have 2 days to complete the long stage so if you don’t make the cut off you have to go back and finish the end of the stage on the next day.  If you do finish the first time you get a day off.  Result.  I had my best day that day (pace & mood) and finished in 11 hours, 1 minute which was a couple of hours well inside the cutoff.  When I crossed the line I was handed a bottle of coke and after a few random questions were picked up under the arms and dropped into the truck to be transported back to camp.  I took issue with being picked up without being asked but to be fair to the medic I’d failed his test to walk in a straight line so he probably had the good reason.  It also amused him to see whether I weighed more than my back pack or not, everyone had been taking the rip all week that my pack was heavier than anyone else’s.  The following day was spent lounging around in the outdoor natural baths.  It was perfect therapy lying on the edge of a beach ½ in ½ out of the water in my bikini in 10 degrees air temperature and 30 degrees water temperature.  I spent the rest of the day stuffing my face with malt loaf and M&Ms to lighten my pack.

The last stage was laughable, not in a disrespectful way, more like I actually laughed out-loud on route at the way the path went.  I knew we were basically going away from camp, up a volcano, round the crater, back down again, through some sand dunes and to the finish.  When I say up a volcano I’m talking directly up it, practically hands & knees crawling up the mountain.  At the top it was so windy I was running in one direction and moving in another!   When I was climbing up it I could see up ahead there was a man coming down the same way, which was a good thing because I decided it would be polite of me to step aside and let him pass….I mean I wanted a breather…. Anyway, when he got close he said: “hello Harriet, how’s it going?”  Err what?  I was quite stumped by this and way too knackered to figure out that the marshal at the top had told him to look out for some British girl on her way up and say hello.  Made me laugh anyway.  In the scheme of things, the last stage was a piece of cake.  Physically it was tough & very steep terrain but emotionally it was the easiest run of the week.  Finishing was a bit of a daze, I forgot about my knee & my shin and how tired I was, just had my flag above my head from the last 500m and ran as fast as I’d run all week to get over that line.  It was great to be finished I felt really proud and relieved too.  There were good facilities at the hot baths and I went straight to the changing rooms and sat on a bench.  There was no one else around and before I knew it I was bawling my eyes out.  I think the whole week just rushed up and took over, I’d cried earlier in the week when I was in pain or when I was feeling down but this was a full-on blub like a baby, let it all out session.  Once I’d sorted myself out I went upstairs and had the most amazing bowl of soup I’ve ever tasted.

PART 3 - RECOVERY

I didn’t realise what a state I was in until I got back.  It took a couple of days for my injuries to really show up and I looked such a wreck my friends were more concerned than me.  My sleeping was still up in the air, mainly because I was in so much pain and couldn’t get comfortable.  I had pre-arranged some time with Simon before I went to get a head start on fixing me up.  It was good to talk through the race and how I’d felt with someone who understood the effects of what I’d done, helped put things into context.  He said that it was good to know what I’m capable of, most people don’t ever even try to find out.  I thought about how the week had gone and that I felt like I’d found my limit.  But then that would mean I’d have stopped.  I don’t think I’d want to get much closer.
I slept downstairs for a few days not wanting to risk getting stuck upstairs!  I made the mistake of going straight back to work, should’ve booked the week off to recover properly first without the pressure of catching up since I’ve been very little use to anyone anyway.  I know I need to eat up on quality fruit and veg and protein to help my body recover and I’m doing that easily because I’ve been craving it for a week.  Trouble is I’m supplementing it with crap too but that shouldn’t hurt.
I’ve been asked 2 common questions since I got back.  1) Did you enjoy it?  2) What are you going to do next?  Answers 1) ask me next week, 2) rest-up.
So, in summary, the Fire & Ice Ultra is a brutal race that will break you if you let it.  If you don’t, you’ll get to run in places forbidden without special permission, so heavily protected that our footprints were raked over to protect the landscape from being tarnished.  I was bewitched by the small pockets of stunning scenery hidden in miles of never ending nothingness.  I’m still seeing little pink flags in my sleep and I think Simon’s going to be busy until Xmas fixing me up properly this time round.  This race took over the first half of my year and it feels good to have been through it.  Now I’m looking forward to a few weeks of hot tubs and loafing before I get back on it and start up again, this time just for the love of it.


start of quote It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret end of quote
Jackie Joyner-Kersee