Malta’s toughest race: Gozo Hellfire 55k.

Creaming up, for the third time
Pre-race. Creaming up, for the third time

“I don’t know if I can finish. But that’s the point. I don’t want to enter a race I know I can finish. I want a challenge and to see how I measure up. To try something I don’t know I can finish: that excites me.”

me race start carmel
Probo one of only times you’ll see me next to Carlos (white t-shirt) in a race scenario ;) He won, I did not

me finish
Happiest I’ve ever been (when not on morphine)

 

I wrote this the a few days after: “I have a feeling now like being in love, or having had a baby, without that anxiety and trepidation that I’m somehow going to mess it all up. No matter what happens now, I’ve completed an ultra and nothing can take that away.”

 

 

Must concentrate on the briefing.
Must concentrate on the briefing, not worry about playlist Photo credit: www.trailrunning-tours.com

 

The most chuffed-est wine/buff holding-winner you will ever see. Photo credit: www.trailrunning-tours.com

I  heard that Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little running thrown in.  That sounded like my kinda party!  I’m quite good at eating and I like running.

I started the taper before my training.

I was doing the ultra, I wasn’t doing the ultra, I was doing the ultra, I wasn’t doing the ultra, I did the ultra.

Most of all, I wanted that buff.

I have learned mainly through this ultra experience, that when you set your mind in gear, like automatic gear and fix your mind on a goal like a satellite navigation you will get there, whatever the weather.

 

In Oct 2014, my 4 year-old twins started school and I had to decide what to best do with my mornings. I could either return to teaching Yoga, writing articles here and for Elephant Journal, or focus on training for an ultra.  Their father works 6 days a week and most evenings.  We have no babysitters, so if they are sick from school, or on a short day or holiday, or need to go somewhere, that’s my job (along with the household duties, shopping and food prep).  But I knew I needed to do one of these three goals for myself, I needed a role outside of the home as they were getting more independent also.

I started to stress, I wanted to teach Yoga, but was anxious of cancelling classes if I needed to take care of the twins.  I enjoyed writing, but as Adam liked to point out, it made no money.

Also, when I crossed the finish line of New York Marathon 2006, I knew in that moment I would one day want to run an ultra.

I didn’t know whether I would still be in Malta in 2016, whether my back would be worse, whether I would have given up running to focus on other things, so it was possibly now or never.  I wanted something that would take everything I had, even if I didn’t finish, I wanted to feel flattened, that’s my favourite kind of ‘me-time’, honestly.

I set about the training, the Gozo Ultra being my goal, but by Christmas I felt it was taking too much time away from the other things, so I cut running down to 3 days a week.  I started subbing a Yoga class in January, and it became my own class by February.  I started writing again around the same time. I decided that with all these commitments it was easier to keep to my running schedule as was and focus on getting faster at half-marathons.  When Gozo hellfire rolled around, I had done a 30k night run under 3 hours and felt too fine afterwards and like I could do it again the next day.  I felt I needed a bigger challenge so messaged my trail running friend to say that we should try 31 miles on a trail next.  She told me she wanted to cut down distance to work on speed for triathlons.

When I did the hellfire 21k last year, characteristically ill-prepared, I was just checking the course with a plan to do the Ultra this year. My best friend told me a couple of months ago that I need to get my confidence back.  I felt that if I completed an Ultra, I really could do all those things I doubted I could.  Completing an ultra whilst taking on new yoga classes and writing for Elephant Journal, I’m just grateful I was lucky enough for all these opportunities.  Of course my success concerning the Ultra was largely thanks to the backing of the organisers.  Deirdre and Nathan I can only describe as really patient as I moved myself from full to half, back to full, back to half, and then on the advice of a couple of ultra-running Americans, back to full.  Not once did Deirdre and Nathan tell me to hurry up make a final decision.  They just supported me on my decision-making journey. If they had told me I had to stop flitting, I would have understood and stopped.

At three weeks before I entered the full but I immediately felt sick with nerves.  My mind became my worst enemy ‘who the HELL do you think you are?! Lining up for an ultra with all those elite runners, get a grip! Back to your level, you’re a park-run mum at best! Don’t get ideas above your station!’ All the negative thoughts I’d ever collected about my abilities or physical state were on repeat in my brain every waking minute. It was torturous, and I was doing it to myself.  It was incredibly revealing about the danger of unrestrained mind-chatter. After a few days I couldn’t bear myself any longer, so went back to the half.  There was a niggling feeling however of dissatisfaction, I did that last year in my sandals, so feeling excited about it this year did not feel challenging. I am a bit faster, but not dramatically so, and anyway, that course is not much running, so won’t really show any improvements, except for more suitable kit. Distance is the only challenge I relish.

Thanks to Tyler and Toni.. As being honest, when I told them I was thinking of dropping down to the half distance, I already had. I just wasn’t 100% comfy with that decision. If Tyler hadn’t said ‘that’s a bad idea’ I would have stuck with my decision. I checked with Toni for her opinion also, she and the race organisers agreed I should go for it, so I did and couldn’t be happier with my decision and their help.  Nathan told me “after 4 hours: it’s all mental” and I believe he’s completely correct.  I told Tyler I was not as well-trained as the guys in the trail group, he said: “so what? It’s your race, not theirs”.  I let the negative thoughts remain, but I took the mental energy away from empowering them, and turned to practicalities.

I quickly had to buy a hydration pack, salts, nutrition etc. This took a week to get organised, I tested these things when they were delivered, the Tuesday before the Saturday race on a 15-17k trail. I’d then spent about a week preparing my race bag, then had a bag of stuff prepared for Adam to meet me with.  Plus I prepared a bag of stuff for Adam and the kids.  I had 10 hours of the best, carefully-selected hardhouse on my iPod (supplied by a friend) and the route downloaded on to my garmin.  I don’t use music to distract me from the pain of running, I use music to motivate me, push me on, and distract me from the negative talk inside my head.

The day and night before the race was the most telling.  My monkey-mind tried to convince me 1) that I may be pregnant 2) that I was getting my period 3) that I was getting sick and 4) that, for the first time in over a hundred years, what I really wanted to do was put on a movie, open some wine and curl up on the sofa, make a night of it.

I tell thee, the mind is out to destroy all your best laid plans. It has good intentions, it wants to save us from failure and embarrassment.  Don’t try to quell the thoughts, but don’t take them seriously, laugh at them, they’re beyond ludicrous.

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right”. Henry Ford

Adam had reminded me how ill-prepared I was last year, so this year I made sure I had Nathan’s number and knew where and how we were to be collected from the ferry in Gozo.  Yet, I had neglected to think of a back-up plan of where to park the car if the spaces near the ferry were full.   Luckily, when I got there at 615 for the 630 ferry, I got the last parking slot.

At the race start I’d been so busy laughing and joking and trying to fix my number in a visible place that I had (as always it seems) neglected to stretch prior to the start, or eat the breakfast I had brought with me.  Trying to fix my bib to my crop top and shorts, Nathan laughed: “what on earth are you doing?” Carmel then asked me casually: “So, do you have a race strategy?” I shared with her my rudimentary aim: “Try not to die?”

I very much live in the present at times like this (I’m not saying this is always a good thing) and I was enjoying the pre-race tense and excited jovial atmosphere, I didn’t want to tie myself down to details and stress.  Hellfire events are not those kind of races.  It has grown from a small, local event to now attracting wider and wider-spread attention, so a lot of people know each other and we were all catching up, saying hi etc.  I was sweating in the sun already, so took my t-shirt off, attached it to my bag, put a third layer of suncream on (with the help of Lara) and off we went.

I felt awesome for the first 15k.  That was my favourite part of the route.  I did push a bit, contrary to my plan off easing of any pushing until Marsalforn. but it is always kind of pointless me making any plan, as I appear to have an idiosyncratic tendency to get a kick out of rebelling against my own rules.  A dog seemed to share my excitement and bounded up to me as I ran past.

I wanted to get some good distance in whilst the terrain was easy and I felt good and also before the heat of the day.  I was singing, whistling and dancing and looking forward to the opportunity ahead of 55 k of this.  I am not sure at what point exactly I injured the outside of my left knee. I just know I hit the ground too hard going downhill and somehow twisted it.  It didn’t hurt immediately, but as we came into the second aid station at Azure window, I was feeling it.  There was some climbing after that station.  And as I descended I noticed there was a problem when I ran.  I slowed dramatically.   Vikesh and the Japanese man (with a backpack dangling flipflops) had left me at the aid station (it took me forever to manage the filling of the hydrapack, I needed a lot more practice at that) and then I didn’t catch them again.  This was annoying me, mainly due to the Japanese backpack, and I knew Vikesh was less prepared than me, bless him.  This was his first ever trail run and first distance above a half marathon, he was doing it only to raise money for the recent Nepal earthquake disaster.  He told me he’d woken 3 times the night before with nerves.  I felt we were in a similar boat, until the knee problem became apparent. At this point I knew Anthony was a way behind me.  I  lost the trail markings and got lost, there was no mobile signal.  I tried to call Adam to ask him to soak and cool my spare hat, as I had started to feel quite hot and a little bit sick.  I was desolate so took the opportunity to go for a pee away in some shade.  This was a good sign, as I had now drank quite a lot but in over 3 hours no peeing.  I then took it steady retracing my steps back to the last marker.  I had seen Vikesh ahead but I couldn’t figure out how to get to where he was.  I soon found the way, got some good hardhouse on and off I went.  On the next descent through a valley I had really slowed and could no longer run.  Anthony caught me up and I asked if he thought I could finish by walking.  He said Nathan is close behind collecting the markers, to ask him.  Nathan said it was possible so off we went.  Anthony was just having a bad day, he was not sure why exactly, but was feeling worse than me.  Other than my knee I had no problems.  This was mentally the worse stretch for me.  I had been excited to see Adam and my kids when my pace was reasonable, I thought I would get to them an hour earlier than planned and thought I could spare 15 minutes to sit, eat and talk with them before they headed off to a birthday party, this idea was getting very unlikely.  From this point all the way to Qabbar, I felt it was an easy flat part, which I had the motivation and desire to run but just not the knee.  I saw the ambulance and asked them to bandage it.  It felt better and I picked up the pace, running a bit.

‘You are extremely red!’ Anthony sounded alarmed. ‘Have you got sun block on?’ I had applied three layers. I knew my thighs were red but I also knew my skin flushed with activity, maybe due to being fair-skinned? Still, I knew how the Maltese sun could be, the burn sometimes taking eight hours to show, so I covered up. My hands had started to swell as I loosened the garmin strap three notches. Nathan said this was normal. But helped me pull on arm sleeves as we thought this would help.
I remembered from the article Toni sent me from the Western States that talked about swelling, and not peeing, headaches and skin flushing red. I wracked my brains to try and remember what it all meant but nothing was coming.

I saw my friends who had come to greet me and they walked with me to Marsalforn aid station (the point I originally said I may drop out at).  Nathan said I could still finish it in the time.  I felt fine walking and knew what the rest of the course involved: not a lot of running opportunities, but scrambling over rocks and steep, rocky and loose rock descents.  Nathan’s concern was that I would maybe damage my knee more.  This wasn’t my concern, my preoccupation was finishing before the cut-off, or getting my run cut-off near but before the finish due to time.  All I could think about was the finish line.  I had tunnel vision, I could focus on nothing else, not the pain not the frustration, only getting to the finish line.  I told Anthony (who by this point had become my ultra-partner) that we needed to pick up the pace and we could do it.  I was feeling a little hot, pressured and nervous about my knee, the last was the least of my worries though.  I set my mind in gear to finish.  If Nathan had asked me to stop at Marsalforn due to time/ safety concerns, I would have.  I would have also understood and I expected him to, but he didn’t so I was determined not to stuff up this opportunity. I had called ahead to Adam and asked him to get me a go and fun isotonic, a go and fun energy drink for Anthony and an organic energy drink for me and to get out extra tissues, sun cream and some more mule bars.  So far I had only been relying on my Nuun electrolyte water, and 2 mule bars.  Plus an apple halved and spread with salt at each of the last two aid stations, and half a banana at the first.  I also had an isotar drink at each station.  Walking, my body felt fine.  Adam was really good at helping me, shoved the energy drink in my back, the tissues in a new sweat band and we lathered suncream on my exposed legs, then Anthony and I were off.  We walked a bit with Nathan, then Nathan stopped to sort out the awards dinner arrangements.  This got me excited about the after-party, where I gained many new friends last year.  I tucked my isotonic drink in my pack front straps.  When we descended on the the rocky parts between Marsalforn and Ramla, I was glad to have Anthony with me, as with an injury I was a little less confident than usual.  I wouldn’t accept any help to pass, but having him there we worked out the best routes between us.  It made it more fun and less stressful for sure.  Plus I think helping out each other kept us going.  I think maybe Anthony had a ‘come-down’ from the Go and Fun, but I’m not sure what happened.  I asked him if I could give him anything: ‘I need a fillet steak and a case of cold beer’ was his answer.   I felt the pain a bit seeing English people on the beach, after Anthony and I had been discussing how badly we wanted prosecco and beer. Why must I suffer to enjoy myself ? But I knew the answer to this already, no point in going there. Running metabolises difficult feelings and emotions, it turns them into sweat and endorphins. I enjoy pain I choose and a sense of freedom more than sitting at home and facing that stuff and feeling consumed by it.  

At Ramla I kind of ‘lost’ Anthony.  He was still with me physically, but I couldn’t get any sense.  He kept asking how much further my watch said, but at this point we had left the original route (the route was changed last minute) and my watch never re-found the course.  The last it had said was 15k left, which I told him was not far at all.  He was not as enthusiastic.  The weather had cooled, it was 3 o’clock or later, I was starting to feel really good, we were on the home run as I saw it.  I knew what was to come would still be a challenge, but I didn’t consider for a moment that it wasn’t going to happen.  After getting off Ramla beach he stomped off up the trail.   I had so much of that sticky clay sand in my shoes I couldn’t walk, I shouted after him “but don’t you have sand in your shoes?!” but he just waved at me dismissively, I had to empty mine which were packed full and then I chased after him.   Everyone talked about how this next part was the hardest, but I don’t recall it clearly at all.  I guess as for me, the bits that stuck out the most on reflection were painful descents, not climbs.  When we got to the top however, Anthony was flat on his back.  I stepped over him, for a moment I wondered if he was dead, or fainted, but he was just exhausted.  I laid out everything I had in my back-pack.  I told him that I wasn’t going to use any of it (the truth, the gels and clif bloks were a back-up and I didn’t plan to use them this late in the game) he was reluctant to take anything, but he had given me some nuts early on in the day, and I didn’t need this stuff, plus I wanted him to get up and carry on.  He took a gel and we continued.  He hit another rough patch, at this time I carried on.  I didn’t know what to do.  He wasn’t improving.  We didn’t set out to complete this together, and I really wanted to complete this.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to leave him behind, he was my buddy and what if I was in his situation?  I called Adam for advice, and then was about to call Nathan but saw Anthony coming up the hill behind me.  I insisted he take some water and salt, and then we carried on together for a while.  Anthony told me he saw the Japanese man at the top of the hill ahead and this heartened me.  We passed the ambulance and then I felt, at least Anthony can now get help, I felt I had helped him get back on his feet, helped him as far as I could and then I had to focus on getting down a step hill to Dahlet Qorrot.  I zig-zagged a bit as it was comfy going right to left this way.  I saw Vikesh and the Japanese man leaving the valley as I entered, this encouraged me, I was only 10 minutes behind.  I saw the sign at the aid station: the next stop was the finish.  I took half an apple and two slices of orange. The scouts at this station were especially helpful, they told me 9.1 km to the end.  I was heartened, but as I left the valley by the steps, I saw a man running into the valley.  I thought for a moment Anthony had made a significant recovery then realised that he had a white t-shirt, like, argh! Nathan! Noooo! I sped up.  I knew if Nathan caught me I would possibly not make it.  Then I got lost, really lost.  I was following the tape, not the spray and could not find more tape.  Nathan had already told me not to do that, but it was easier to look in the distance for tape, and my mind was kind of on auto pilot.  After about 20 mins of looking for the route, and trying to call the race director to explain where I was (but no signal) I had no choice but to wait for Nathan.  Then just as I saw Nathan I saw the ambulance guy up the hill, so that was the way.  Nathan told me Anthony had just dropped out at the last aid station.  So it was just me.  We chatted a bit, it was fun getting to know this Ultra-marathon legend a bit better, but he doesn’t know this bit: His wife called and I know they speak to each other in English.  He hung back a bit from my and said ‘Bill-mod’ I have no idea how to spell that, but as I spend a lot of time in children’s playgrounds, I know it means ‘slowly’.  I was determined not to slow him down, but attempting to run was futile.  I was concerned by running I would jeopardise my ability to finish by walking.  When he got off the phone I apologised.  He said it was no problem, and we tried to pick up the pace still determined to make the cut-off.   I said I knew I could finish, but I didn’t want to make him late.  He said all he cared about was the beer getting warm.  I said I’d buy him some ice. I then talked quite a bit of gibberish, but that’s not entirely unusual, and then at about 5 k from the end the conversation dwindled.  I started to feel-it really.  I wasn’t completely spent, but I could feel like I was getting down to the last bar of petrol.  I wanted to have that energy drink, I wanted to stop and pull the thorns out of my feet, I wanted to rub some more vaseline on my chaffing thighs, but I did not want to stop, I did not want to miss the cut-off.  The only way off the cliff was onwards, anyway.  I never wanted to stop.  However, it alarmed me to feel and then see that my hands had really really swelled.  They were starting to hurt so I pumped my firsts above my head and held my hands there as I walked.  Or put hands on my head.  I read lots of stories of ultra-running, I’ve asked a lot of ultra-runners questions, but this and the issue of abandoning Anthony were ones I was un-prepared for. I don’t know where it came from, but I decided I had the need to talk about all the bad things I knew about marathons. Nathan talked about UTMB and what happened to his heart then and Marathon de Sables, stuff like that…. We walked past a pregnant lady in a village and I had the thought, maybe I should have another baby and then I wouldn’t have to do these crazy things.  Later on I told Nathan this, but looking back that is not one iota how I feel (I find ultras easier than having babies).  Then, I saw the tarmac.  Nathan said 2k left once we hit tarmac.  The first sighting of tarmac was like an oasis in a desert.  As we got on the road I knew I wouldn’t need to scramble on hands any more, so asked Nathan to get my energy drink out my pack.  I needed sugar to get through the final uphill push.  I was low in sugar.  We passed the ambulance and Nathan said, look they are waiting for you.  “Will they be at the finish?” I joked to him, he smiled but then, in Maltese quietly asked hem if they would go to the finish, they said they were already planning it.  I knew the minute I crossed that finish I was heading straight for them for some attention on my knee.   As we walked the last uphill and I drank my drink I asked Nathan if he had read ‘Eat and Run’, and the story of Scott Jurek’s friend he paced in Western States, who dropped 100 metres from the finish line.  Nathan said that happens when you are hypoglycaemic.  I thought maybe I should not be talking about this right now, and took a swig of drink…  Nathan said I could not cross the line with that, to give it to him, I downed the last half a can… I didn’t really want it, but knew i would in 5 mins. I also knew all that caffeine into someone who drinks 1 green tea a day was going to give me the jitters, but I wanted more than anything to get across that line.  Nathan called ahead to say we were coming.  I heard Lara shout GO HANNAH!  And I started to run automatically.  I was so excited.  But still concious, as I had been since I injured my knee, that it could all go wrong ’til the final minute.  It isn’t over until the fat lady sings, rang in my head many times.  I heard everyone cheering and I smiled and ran, I was happy to see the clock under 10.30 at 10.25.  to me I reasoned that if I took off the 15 mins I had spent with Anthony, I had finished with the last finishers before me, and under the cut-off? The ambulance lady was ready.  It was so funny I ran past my friends straight into the open ambulance saying, ‘I am just going for a little lie down in there’.  I sat as she bandaged my knee  and I told her not to do an ultra, to play playstation instead.  I think I was delirious.  The english lady organiser who I don’t know brought me everything I needed, including my prize buff.  Pretty much the only time I speak to Antonello Gauci is after a finish line when he offers me a shower, banana, whatever else I need :) What a star. I caught up with Felicia, her wife and dog.  Then some other finishers, what a nice feeling, that collective limping euphoria.  The dinner was great.  I remember going to the bathroom and just sitting quietly in the cubicle for a moment and smiling silently, I did it! I am so happy!  Thanks God :)

Lots of awesome chat over dinner, and I received a prize for being the last one on the course.  Anthony bought me a drink and said thanks for helping him.  I asked him what was his reason for dropping so close to finishing.  He said he wouldn’t have made it to the final aid station if I hadn’t helped him, he would have stayed where he collapsed.  He said he it was his feet, that he couldn’t go any further and told me his shoes were full of sand.  I said “you don’t remember me trying to stop you after the beach saying; What about the sand? And you waving me off? ” He had no recollection of this at all.  It’s weird, I know our paths are highly unlikely to cross until we next see each other in the race.

I limped around after the dinner for a bit, as Cliff said he would take me to the ferry.  We missed the ferry so he took me back to the bar and we had a drink with Rueben.  Then when we got the next ferry I told Cliff I would go to the toilet, he said he would meet me in the cafe.  I came out of the loo and into the cafe, where I saw Lara and Justin.  I asked them where Cliff was and they hadn’t seen him. “Strange man!” I said and pulled up a chair.  We chatted about Justin’s race on the bike, and the whole day.  Near the end of the ferry journey, they reminded me there is a cafe on the other side of the ferry!  Now, I have been on this ferry about a dozen times, I was clearly still quite blinkered and had just not realised or remembered this, which is quite bizarre, but funny.  Not for Cliff. I went in the other side and saw Cliff staring lonesomely at his phone. Haha! Poor guy.

I got home and, through habit walked the stairs to our second floor apartment (I never take the lift unless have heavy stuff).  I thought this was funny, I clearly had plenty more energy left, the 55k experience had not absolutely expended me- so, other distances started to pop into my mind…  It wasn’t until I got into bed at 1am, after a shower, that I realised the state of my feet. I had nettles in my left one, which I knew but hadn’t wanted to stop at the time.  I woke at 3am, excited by achieving something I didn’t know was possible, and also in a bit of pain, I went back to sleep eventually.  Although I was more physically destroyed, in a way, the 21k in 2014 might have been harder for me, as I wasn’t mentally prepared for it.

A final thing I would say that is relevant, be careful who you share your dreams with, or rather, only share your dreams with those who will understand and support them, there is no onus on you to tell anyone anything.  I didn’t even tell a single member of my family.  I liked this no-pressure approach much more than one with lots of sponsorship, personally.

A few thank you’s: a special mention for the Farrugias, for not telling me to drop out.  I used to admire Nathan as an ultra-athlete, but I now see him in a different light.  He was kind staying with me and not once getting frustrated when I know he could’ve finished that course in half the time, and also hanging back so I could cross the finish line in some kind of glory,

I don’t care what happens now with my running, but that feeling crossing the finish will stay with me forever.  Hopefully Nathan and Deirdre understand what all that meant to me, in comparison to potentially telling me I should drop out, which they could’ve rightfully done so.

Thank you for everyone who cheered me up that hill, everyone I met and saw on the course, everyone who said “yes” not “no” when I intimated them to my plan.

Going through any part of an ultra with someone now I’ve realised is a special bonding journey, one I wont be forgetting in a hurry.

About 20 minutes after the finish, I knew I was hooked. I wanted that sense of achievement again.  It is a feeling I remember from when I was in South America, we finished a 5 or so day trek in the Amazon, came out filthy after washing only in the river, and I called my mum to find out that I had exceeded my A’level result expectations and was off to the Uni of my choice.  It was a feeling I got when I saw my International law results, a feeling of personal achievement beyond my expectations.  I can’t compare it to finding out I was having twins, or getting them home from hospital, although there were similarities, there is so much trepidation involved in having children, where as crossing a finish line is just pure relief, a feeling of special tingling, elation and excitement that I won’t get from slightly improving my half-marathon time.  I knew I wanted that feeling again, and distance was my way to get it.

I had told Toni one of my reasons for wanting to do the ultra was so I could move onto the next level.  Now I knew I could complete an ultra, even under those circumstances , I started to feel like 50-miles or 100-k are figures I can think about and look at.

I understood a bit now from a first person experience what an ultra means.  This was an experiment in preparation.  I didn’t finish in any kind of glory, but for next year I will train HARD and run the whole damn thing ;) Shabba!

Hannah-Marie

I'm a Yoga teacher and mother to 5-year old twins, with an interest in health, wellness and movement. In addition to articles on here, my work can be found by searching on Elephant Journal for my name, which will bring up recipes and mindful living articles. Thanks for reading :-)

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