Updated: Jan 4
Vertical Gain: 10,010m
Training had gone well during the 6 week block I had available between the Ironman World Champs and travelling at the end of November. Cautious not to dive straight back into 100+ mile weeks after mainly cycling in the summer, I started back at around 100km and increased by about 20km/week up to 200km in the peak week. At the same time my cycling volume gradually decreased, while time in the gym remained constant. The net effect was manageable and relatively consistent 20-25hr training weeks. There seems to be a nice balance around the 25hr week that enables you to feel like you are training hard, but are still able to fully absorb the training load, something I will discuss further in my end of year review.
Luke Hanson, who had come 2nd at the Ultra X World Champs in Slovenia, came out for the final long weekend of training. Despite a 36km, and 50km long run, and a 3x600m of vert session, I wasn't feeling tired, and was confident that I could make the podium in Thailand. Sam Heward who hadn't been able to train for the race due to injury, kindly agreed to act as crew.Things were shaping up nicely.
I arrived in Chiang Mai 8 days before the race. I got soaked on my scooter driving from the airport to the Air B and B, but managed to find it using my watch's GPS. I slept well the 1st night having stayed up on the flights to get straight onto Thai time.
On the 2nd night I couldn't sleep though, with a high heart rate which I assumed must have been from drinking too much tea. The next day I ran the first 22km of the course with an additional 5km loop back. My heart rate was high, but more worryingly it was thumping so hard on the climbs that I could feel it beating in my ears, and had to stop to catch my breath. I went to bed that night with a sore throat and awoke to headaches and back and muscle pain the next day. My Heart Rate Variability (HRV) had plumeted, resting HR was up by 30bpm, and my stress level was also up. I realised then I must have picked up a bug, but didn't suspect it to be more than a normal virus... until I couldn't smell the coffee the next morning!
A Covid test the next day gave me confirmation of a positive result. The next few days were pretty rough with back/muscle pain and headaches stopping me from sleeping. All I could do was rest and pray that I would be able to make the start. By Wednesday (48 hrs before the race) the throat, headaches, and muscle pain had stopped and my HRV had at least stabilised. I didn't feel at all rested the day before the race, with a 5km test run on Doi Inthanon feeling pretty awful. Having read Killian Jornet's post UTMB race interview (he had very similar symptoms/issues with Covid) where he started UTMB 2 weeks post C-19, I did have hope that I would be able to finish, but also dread after him saying how painful his muscles were during the race. I'd had lots of good advice from Luke (who had Covid twice) to keep the effort low, and with encouragement from Sam, I thought I should at least start.
Race start was at 10am. They were allowing bib numbers 1-150 to the front (as the highest ranked athletes). As about the 14th ranked male in the field based on UTMB index, I should have had a low bib number, but thanks to my surname confusing the system, I had been assigned possibly the highest (7368). The guy said that I couldn't go to the front. I stood there arguing my case that it would be unfair to start at the back. He eventually let me through, and I was able to get to about the 4th row back from the front.
I could see all the big names in front of me, but as we started I was stuck behind stationary runners as the front all took off. Worried about missing running with the first group, I caught up so quickly that I suddenly found myself at the front after only 400m. I was soon joined by the American Rod Farvard who floated up the first 30% gradient with ease. He started chatting to me demonstrating the ease of his effort, but also seemed curious as to who I was. I explained that I wasn't feeling great after covid, and my heart rate was already at 178BPM! He said that he'd done Western States with/post Covid though, and to take the uphills easy, and most encouragingly of all "don't stop til you drop!" with typical American enthusiasm. He then pulled away and I decided not to try and follow (not that I could have followed anyway). On the flatter/downhill sections I was able to catch up and pass him, but even then my heart rate was still incredibly high (low 160's). I was still able to breathe through my nose up to 170BPM, which shouldn't have been possible! I decided that I would have to ignore the data and just try and go off feel as much as possible... the problem was that I didn't feel great anyway.
I found myself back and forth with the Italian Francesco Cucco, along with some local dogs who had followed us from the start. We were flying along the ridge line through the water point at 14km, and on to the first aid station at 23km. Gediminus Grinius had been hanging back in 3rd, suddenly put in a move a few KM before the aid station. Sam had fresh bottles of Maurten made up, gels, chocolate brownies, bars, as well as a ham and cheese croissant and coke waiting for me!
By midday temperatures were over 30 degrees centigrade, with humidity around 80%, even at 1200m altitude, and even hotter as we descended to the foot of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain. Cucco started to pull away, and then Zhao came storming past on the flat pushing me back to 4th. As we started climbing though I quickly repassed Zhao and then Cucco to go back into 2nd. It was sweltering on the climb up the south facing slope. I ran out of water before the next aid station, and started getting the most painful muscle cramps that felt like fire. I started resorting to filling my hat with water from streams to keep cool, and even drinking from one fast flowing stream.
I was so dehydrated by the water station that I couldn't drink enough to quench my thirst. At the summit Sam had food and salt pills which helped reduce the cramping just in time for the 40% gradient, double vertical KM descent.
The descent wasn't a "marked" trail, but a section that had been roughly cleared. Young trees had been cut 5cm off the ground leaving sharpened spikes, to stub toes on, and trip over. Even taking the descent slowly, I fell twice. Zhao came past me at incredible speed with lightening fast feet, skipping down the mountain. Luo the other man from China, and Cucco also passed me near the bottom. By 70km I had repassed Cucco and Luo, and as it got dark I could see Zhao's head torch up the next mountain. Despite passing Zhao I couldn't drop Luo. Unfortunately I started having stomach issues at about 90km and had to stop twice, allowing Luo and then Zhao to go ahead. I realised then my head torch was almost dead but thought I could just make it to the A9 aid station at 100km. Despite plugging in some music for the next hour or so, I wasn't able to catch back up with the "Orient express". I had gone through 100km in about 12hrs 50mins which was just 6 minutes off the original pacing plan to a 22hr time, but things were starting to fall apart.
My watch died just after the A10 aid station, and my "ultra shuffle" was starting to resemble more of a waddle for the 21km before the last crewed aid station at A11. There had been some mix up with the drop bags so I didn't have the food I had expected, but Sam had gone and found me a load of chocolate bars, biscuits, and GU gels. He also gave me his watch with the route loaded, while I ate what I could.
I managed to maintain the waddle for the next 15km, but as the sun came up on the last climb, I was reduced to walking. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall street, after taking too many ludes, I was in the "cerebral palsy phase", with my body no longer responding to commands. When I tried shuffling on the flatter sections, nothing would happen, and even the waddle was now slower than walking. Just at the top of last climb "tiger ridge", I was passed by two North Face athletes with just 10km to go. The heat was starting to rise again, and those last 10km were a death march. I reached the finish chute in a state of shock. No emotion, even relief that it was over, just a state of daze. I went straight to the medical tent, where they did an ECG test, checked oxygen saturation, which were all ok, and after a nap with Sam bringing me food, I was able to drive home by scooter.
Aftermath/Road to UTMB
Somehow I actually felt better the day after the race than I had the day before (apart from the ruined feet and legs). A few easy days in Chiang Mai and then an evening out visiting friends in Bangkok all suggested that I had got away with racing right after having Covid. Unfortunately after travelling back to the UK I got hit by intense fatigue and started feeling unwell again. I had already started easy runs but these suddenly left me feeling more tired, and it has been a constant struggle to do anything else but rest. I think I am finally on the mend, but will continue to take things easy, eat, sleep, and rest as much as possible over Christmas, and come back renewed in the New year.
Despite blowing up on the back half, and coming in 3hrs after my target time, I still managed 6th in a competitive international field, and half decent score of 790/1000 on the UTMB index. As one of the three "UTMB Majors" I now have a guaranteed/elite entry to UTMB next year. I go away from this race with great confidence that If I can get to the start line in Chamonix without injury or illness, then the target of a top 10 finish is truly within reach!
Massive thanks again must go to Sam Heward, who's constant support and encouragement got me to both the start and finish line. I can tell he will make an excellent father one day... as he put up with a whining, sick, "infant" for a week, was up all night with no sleep, making bottles of formula, and keeping said infant fed and happy.