A very hard run in the mountains

” So,” said Charlie as we were driving up towards Oukaimeden, a ski resort in the Atlas Mountains, “The trick with these long mountain races is to walk up and then to make the time up by running down at speed. That way you can really conserve your energy but keep the pace going”

“Ahh great,” I said, “When I did the Beachy Head marathon, I got passed on the hills up but I blasted past everyone on the downhills. I think it’s because of the mountain biking.”

Hold that thought.

Our aim was to do a 7 1/2 hour run/walk up through the mountains taking in a couple of colls, and testing ourselves out over the hills, at altitude and to some distance. We wanted to try ourselves out with our eye on UTAT (Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal) in October. The ultra is 105 km in 36 hours with 6,500 m of ascent http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk/tour/toubkal-ultra-marathon-2012/

Oukaimeden is at 2, 616 metres and I could feel the altitude straight away as my heart zoomed up to 160 bpm. It was hot, not as hot as Marrakech, but in the high 30s, and there was a slight haze over the mountain tops.

Due to my parlous sense of direction, my route was as simple as possible. Up the dirt road, over the coll, down the other side as far as I could get in 3 1/2 hours and then turn back for home.

I was straight into a climb, but  a nice one, and managed to keep up a steady marching pace, with some intervals of running where it flattened out a bit. Wildflowers including vivid splashes of purple thistles lined the route and the views across the range spread out and magnified as I got higher.

2 1/2 hours later, I was at the top, 3,059 metres and still feeling good. Bearing Charlie’s advice in mind. I set off at a run down the other side, tackling the zig zags with just a few nasty slips and adrenalin pumping stumbles. My quads were burning and my legs trembling when I got down to my turning point an hour later. Beachy Head versus the Atlas Mountains – what had I been thinking? It was like comparing a  chiwawa with a rottweiler!

I had felt fine up to that point, but as I turned back, my energy level suddenly plummeted. I hadn’t brought proper food: one banana which had dissolved, some oatcakes and cheese (now liquid), peanuts and a piece of lemon cake. I had eaten the banana at the top of the summit and now tried to force down an oatcake. I spat it out straight away, but had a few peanuts and a tiny piece of the cake. It wasn’t enough and the next hour and a half of crawling back up the col rates as one of my most miserable mountain marches. At one point, I looked at my garmin and my pace was 1.90 km an hour! Every ten steps or so my body just stopped and I had to jolt myself back into walk. 673 metres up, swearing all the way. No energy and no food to bring it back.

Getting to the top gave me some relief, although I knew I actually had a long way to go to get back to base. I  had also run out of water. I had brought just over three litres but it was all gone. I had drunk enough that I wasn’t going to be completely dehydrated, but it added to my general feeling of malaise.

Now it was mainly downhill, but this is where the other realisation set in. It is all very well to plan to run downhill but if you have shot your legs, then you can’t. They aren’t strong enough to take the pounding. Mouth set in a grimace, fuck fuck fuck my mantra, I marched/trotted on.

No energy, nothing edible, no water and the constant pressure that if I wanted to do UTAT I would have to do this another three times over. The negative spiral was only broken by a shepherd I met on route who after the customary exchange of lengthy greetings, reached down and tenderly pushed my hair away from my face. Slightly freaky and definitely encouraged me to up the pace.

Two hours of unrelenting slog brought me to the bottom. Charlie arrived to meet me like a shining knight in his 4×4 bearing a cold bottle of coke. At that moment, I truly loved him. He had had his own massive adventure, which is his story to tell. But one thing we both agreed on – we were BROKEN and 105km is currently out of our reach.

I’d managed 31.4km in 8 hours and 4 minutes, with an elevation gain of 1429 metres (Ben Nevis is 1344 metres to put it in perspective) and a drop of 1463 metres. My average heart rate was a comfortable 127 bpm but I hadn’t felt comfortable. I was surprised at how much my legs hurt and how breathless I was. I felt like I was working harder than that.

In the car on the way down, we held a post mortem, and considering we both have a reasonable amount of experience, we had managed to make a lot of stupid mistakes.

  • It was our first mountain run and was way too ambitious
  • We hadn’t acclimatised at all to the altitude, just gone straight in
  • We hadn’t taken enough food or water
  • We hadn’t eaten properly the day before or for breakfast

Battered and a bit shaken but what a great set of lessons for how not to do it and what we can realistically achieve. So the goal now is to do the marathon distance in October, which will be a massive challenge in itself but with preparation and dedication is one that we hope we can reach.

For ideas on training, go to www.epicrunning.co.uk


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