Trail de Caussou

Caussou. A place I had not heard of.  A place many people may not have heard of as it is a small village on a mountainside in the Haute-Ariège. I have a house in south-western France, near the Pyrenées, and as we were coming on holiday for a few weeks, obviously I looked for a race to run while I was here. Trail de Caussou sounded perfect: 11km, about an hour’s drive from my house over the Col de Chioula, and organized by the village hunt committee. (This last part, as I am vegetarian and loathe hunting, was problematic. But not problematic enough for me not to enter.) It was a simple concept: you had to get to the top of Pic Fourcat and down again. FRB was not certain he would run, although he broke his injury and illness period by running Turnslack with me the other week. “Don’t be afraid if I fall behind you,” he said, and I nodded, thinking, that’s never going to happen.

I told him about Caussou and he looked it up. Rose, he said, do you realise the climb is almost as high as Ben Nevis?


I looked at the race page a bit more. Caussou is at 3,000 feet altitude more or less, and climbing Pic Fourcat added another 3,500 feet. In my head, I retained this fact: we would climb for four miles and descend for four miles.

We drove 1,000 miles to France, arrived mid-week, and early on the Saturday morning set off to Caussou. I knew the way: up to the Pays de Sault, up further though the alpine villages of Camurac and Prades, up to the Col de Chioula pass, which has views as beautiful as the panoramic café staff are grumpy, and then turn right for a direct road to Caussou. We left plenty of time, because although I speak decent French, the website details were slightly unclear. Does “inscription à 8h” mean registration opens at 8 or starts operating at 8? I suppose I could have asked a French speaker, as despite the best efforts of English expats, the village where I have a house is still full of them. But I didn’t. Instead we allowed generous time. I checked Google maps and there were no traffic problems indicated. We got to the turn-off and there suddenly was a problem, unindicated by Google maps. The road was closed. In fact, there had been a landslide and there was no road.


FRB managed not to splutter and so did I. I appealed to his Scottishness. “If we miss the start we can always run for free.” Caussou was already outside the FRB scale of race entries, as it cost more than £1 per mile. We went over the pass, down into Ax-les-Thermes and along the valley, then up again, adding about 40 minutes to our route. As we came off the main road, we encountered another car that had stopped to ask for directions. The man in in the car was waving his hand in what I consider to be a Gallic fashion to indicate frustration. (There was no signpost indicating Caussou, only a tourist sign for la route des crètes: the road of the mountain crests.) We saw his helper’s mouth make the form of “Caussou”, turned to each other and said “he’s doing the race” and followed him. This worked much better than trusting Google, because we got there. On a road that still existed.

Caussou is a tiny village high up and lovely. There were runners wandering up and down with numbers on, but also some without numbers who didn’t look panicked. From this I concluded that “à 8h” meant “from 8” and so it was. We produced our medical certificates, required in France if you don’t belong to the French athletics association, paid 14 euros, and received with grateful surprise a little headtorch, a very useful gift when you have a large 300-year old village house with a three-story barn attached and a leaking roof that tends to leak in the middle of the night. Back to the car and dis donc, suddenly we see a posse of Pudsey & Bramley runners. This was less surprising than it may have seemed; Gary and Debbie who run Pyrenées Haven are P&B, and we knew our friends Graham and Rachel had been planning a holiday there. There was also Niall, another P&B, who was accidentally still there due to a broken-down car and crap service from his insurer. If you think your car may break down in heat and mountainous terrain, or even anywhere, don’t use Axa. There was also another Brit, a Borrowdale fell runner. Out of a race field of about 70, six Brits was an impressive amount. I took appropriate pictures, one of which was photo-bombed by one of the organizers, a woman who managed to look like Maradona from behind (better than looking like him from in front).

The other runners looked like trail or mountain runners. Why do I say that? Because of all the poles. And all the compression socks. A Nordic walk along the same route set off at the same time as us, and for a time I thought all the people with poles were doing the walk, but they were runners too. I’ve never used poles, and I’m not persuaded, having seen runners clack-clacking up through forests no quicker than me, that they’re much cop. Then again, Ben Nevis.

We milled at the start, a fancy inflatable overhead thing from Decathlon (which sponsored the race) enhanced with a nice rustic touch.

Someone started talking via a microphone but I couldn’t hear it. Typical fell race start so far. Then a pistol shot. Not a typical fell race start. I jumped half a foot from shock then set off. The up was immediate and it was hard. I only managed to run for a few minutes, and then it was a walk for the next 3,500 feet of climb. This means I got to know the runners around me. Walkers, really. We were all walkers. There was a young lass in front, and an old fella behind. We climbed up through some woods, a bit of open grassland then back into the trees. I don’t know how long it went on for but when I saw some people standing up ahead with food and drink, they looked like forest angels. I love French races for the refreshments: there were sweets, but mostly it was dried and fresh fruit. Dried apricots and cut oranges, but also prunes. Prunes? Fructose can cause digestive issues, but prunes are usually even worse. I took some apricots and a cup of orange juice, thinking, fructose, then thinking, SUGAR. I heard the older fellow say, “I’m going to be last again,” and I said, “you might not, it might be me, and anyway it doesn’t matter.” Because it didn’t. What mattered was getting to the end of this climb. Up again, through the trees.

The route was excellently signposted with strips of Decathlon tape hanging from branches. Even I couldn’t get lost. Even so, FRB said, check your map after checkpoints. I did. Once.

I checked my watch now and again. God, we’ve only gone a mile. God, we’ve only gone a mile and a bit. Finally we left the treeline and set off up an open expanse. This was felly terrain and familiar: tussocks galore. And the odd lonely tree.

I remembered to turn around to look and nearly fell over from the beauty and glory of it. Mountains, mountains, mountains.

The hills are alive with the sound of huffing and puffing

Far up ahead I could see what looked like a ridge, but I told myself it was a false summit, it couldn’t be the real summit because this race was four miles up and four miles down, and we hadn’t yet done two. I looked behind me and saw someone I didn’t recognise. He was a young man, and he was climbing fast. When I next looked, he was even closer. It was like that scene in Princess Bride where Westley is climbing the cliffs of desolation. Soon enough he had reached me, and went past saying, “I missed the start!” He seemed to be making up for it.

I kept going, having a brief chat with the young lass near me, though I was slightly hampered by the following conversation in my head:

Should I vousvoie or tutoie? (Vous = polite version of ‘you’; Tu = more informal.) Italians much more readily use “tu,” the French more usually use “vous.”. Surely out here on a mountain even the more formal French wouldn’t use vous. I asked her if she was OK, using tu. She responded with vous.


She said, using vous, that she had a made a mistake and should have carried water. As usual I had lots and gave her some. Using tu.

I looked up and saw folk on a summit. This was very puzzling. Perhaps there was another one to climb as well as Pic Fourcat? I got to them, not even managing to run for the photographer, and found the answer to FRB’s earlier question of “how will they get refreshments up without a road” in the shape of a huge quad bike, which had been turned into a serving table. Apricots, prunes, sweets, and flies everywhere.

I thanked everyone and set off as fast as my legs could carry me.

My legs didn’t like that. Think of a just-born calf, its upper body disconnected from the strange long things protruding from it. Gangly doesn’t cover it. My legs were moving but it was momentum not intent. It was not easy terrain to move fast over: grassy, tussocky, treacherous. Still, I ran as fast as I could. As fast as my legs could carry me. Then: halt. There was another incline ahead. Aha: there is another summit. But it was only a short incline. A woman with poles who I’d overtaken descending now overtook me on the climb. That’s fine, except I said hello to her and got short shrift so, as is the way of things in the runner’s brain, that meant: you’re not beating me. At the top of the incline I think there was a man with a clipboard, though perhaps he was a mirage, and then: DOWN. Five miles down. Because the race was in fact not four miles up and four miles down, nor even eight miles long. It was 3,500 feet of climb in two miles, then five miles back. I did my fell running thing and pelted. No-one else did: they seemed to have a steady pace that didn’t change much whether they were going up or down. There was no sprinting.

A short toilet stop in a prickly bush, a brief consideration of ticks, then I was off again. Again, it wasn’t easy. This was not a fair and spongy mountainside of easy running grass. It was rocks and narrow paths or tussocks. I have forgotten much of it, but I remember the next checkpoint. A young boy handed me a drink of water and though I still had some, I accepted it because mine was warm, his was cold, and he had plenty. I made conversation, asking the lad if he spoke any English. He lowered his head with shyness. No English, said the man on the checkpoint. Here we only speak French and Ariégois. He meant it jovially and I took it jovially. He also said, “be careful now; the path gets rocky.” I heard this, and thought two things: that “cailloteux” is a beautiful word, and, what, MORE rocky? And it was. It was properly tricky. I’d read an online piece about Kilian Jornet, who broke the Bob Graham Round record recently. It considered why he was so good, and concluded that it was because he was so fit, and so good at descending, that his descending was actually recovery. It taxed him so little, it gave him more strength for climbing.

I am not Kilian Jornet. This descent taxed me a lot. I rarely want descents to be over, but this one was exhausting. Boulders, pebbles, stones, rocks, dark woods: it had all of that. And my tired legs had to deal with it. I kept going, I managed not to fall over, and then got briefly lost in a dell, a fact I am not ashamed of as when I told FRB I’d got lost in a dell, he knew exactly where I meant. Oh, THAT dell.

I still thought the race was eight miles long, so when I emerged onto a grassy track and began to see barns and buildings, I was confused. Maybe they would stick another mile on it for fun? There was plenty of height to descend, as Caussou was up a mountainside. But then I saw the church spire, and I knew I was reaching the end, and that the race was just over seven miles, and that that was a blessing. Down into the village, past a few cheering folk. Bravo! Bravo! Past the lavoir, the stone washing basins where people used to do laundry, where I managed to note that runners were washing their feet and legs, round the corner and:


Part 24 of FRB’s photo series in which he manages to make me look like a hobbit. A sweaty hobbit.

The P&Bs were all long back, of course. I found a toilet first, then encountered the older man I’d been alongside early on, who was sitting down looking exhausted. He saw me and said, “I couldn’t catch you! I manged to stay with you up to the summit but then you set off downhill like a rocket!”. I thanked him and said it was due to enjoying descending and having little fear of it. Oui, he agreed. And you also have muscular legs. At least I think he meant muscular. He pointed to his lean ones. “Pas comme moi.”

FRB directed me to a water fountain gushing cool, lovely water. I drank some, poured some on my head, recovered a bit, then exchanged my number for a beer. I don’t drink beer, but this was delicious. It was still hot, so we sat in the shade before I remembered the lavoir and we headed for that. Two bored-looking firemen were standing outside it, on race ambulance duty. Someone said, there’s a giant catfish in there, and so there was. Huge, monstrous, and looking sad, unlike FRB, because beer.

What is a giant catfish doing in a village lavoir? I don’t know, but I didn’t like the thought of its teeth encountering my legs. Fish spas are disgusting even when they don’t involve catfish. I asked one of the firemen whether it was safe to bathe. He grinned. “Well, the other runners emerged alive.” Then, in English, “Trust me.” He was handsome and in uniform and wearing dark glasses, so I was minded to. But even so: it was a giant catfish.

We managed to wash while drinking beer, unscathed, then ambled back around for the prize-giving. I liked the look of this: there was an actual podium, which had been fashioned out of a tractor trailer that you climbed onto using a chair and the helpful arm of a nearby woman. The announcer’s microphone wasn’t brilliant though, but the prizes were. I’d seen them inside where the toilet was and wondered what the things that looked like hi-tech prosthetics were. Snow shoes! It was such a small field that the P&B lot were bound to get prizes, and they did: Rachel was 3rd woman, Graham got a Vet’s prize category. I didn’t expect to get anything: the results had already been pinned up and I was fifth out of five 40-50 women. But then, as I was making my way merrily through my second beer, I heard something like “ooze djoj.” None of the P&Bs paid it any attention. But I wondered, and wandered over to the announcer. Did you say Rose George? “Oui,” he said. “Ooze djoj.” I had no idea how, why or what I had won, but I remembered to put my beer to one side, climbed up onto a podium for the first time that I can remember, and was handed a shopping bag with a post-it on it: 3eme Master V1 F. Me! On a podium!

I obviously managed to hide the beer

I got off the podium in one piece (I remind you: I don’t drink beer) and opened my shopping bag to see what prizes I had. This is what was inside:

  • a bottle of foot deodorant
  • a bottle of beautifying milk
  • a hairbrush
  • a plastic Sellotape-like dispenser that instead dispensed a bandage
  • a packet of sweets

Every fell runner should have one of these

I loved it all. Especially the bandage, when I steam-burned my arm quite badly a few days later. The foot deodorant has come in useful too. But mostly, I loved the generosity of a small village race that thinks someone like me worthy of a prize. I worked out later that I had definitely come fifth out of five in my category, but the top two women had finished first and second overall. Impressive, and to my foot-deodorant advantage.

On the entry form, there had been an option to pay 15 euros or something to join in the village meal. I’d had small hopes, when the meal was arranged by the local hunt committee, of finding a good vegetarian option, so we had brought a picnic instead. We found a picnic table under a shady tree next to the village hall, where the meal was being held. I looked over the wall down into the garden where the food was being prepared: a giant hog roast, dripping fat into about two thousand potatoes. I went back to my bread and cheese with only a little bit of regret (I really love potatoes). After a while, a group of villagers came past, released from their race duties, and one shouted over, “aren’t you joining us?” We explained we had not paid, and were clearly picnicking but she was unfazed. “Come and sit with us anyway.” Which is why I love village races, hunt committees or not.

As for FRB and his conviction that he would be running behind me? He overtook me at the start and I didn’t see him after that. He told me he looked down from the summit and saw me in the distance and thought, “I’d better get a shift on”. He beat me by twenty minutes, but he didn’t win a hairbrush.

Thrifty foreign fitness

There is an obvious way of keeping fit on business trips, of course, which is the hotel gym, assuming you are not a cash-conscious freelance author but are instead someone with a sizeable expense account that allows for expensive hotels with good fitness centres. I don’t have an expense account. Normally I’d just work out a running route outside and set off, but I’m in a city that has gone from minus 30 degrees last week to spring weather this week, which means the pavements are covered in lethal black ice. So I’ve had to get inventive. Here are my tips.

1. Make friends

You may think people who post local routes on Strava, Mapmyrun  are your friends. But are they? You can never account for people’s taste: one person’s chosen Sunday loop may include a heavy industrial area. Sometimes the routes or loops are complicated and you’d spend most of the run looking at a map if you had one, or using fiendishly expensive data on your phone. You may feel unsafe in areas that someone who has run here for years thinks is no big deal. My tip: write to a local running group and ask if you can run with them. Runners are a friendly tribe and I’ve never been turned down: I’ve run with people in Kathmandu and Texas and almost run with people in Salt Lake City (except I didn’t have a car to get to the meeting point and it was too far to run to). A friendly Salt Lake City club runner still told me some good running routes though. Here in Canada, I approached Saskatoon Road Runners and asked to run with them and the response was, as the response often is, “sure!” In fact the club mostly organizes races, and group training runs congregate at Brainsport, a local running shop here (which, it turns, out operates a wonderful community outreach program of shoe donation as well as other community outreach stuff). Also they have a good, plain-speaking sign.

On my first full day in Saskatoon, still reeling from jetlag, I turned up at Brainsport, met a nice fellow called Harvey who said, I’m going running on river trails after work, and you’re welcome to join me. He emailed a few other people to see if they wanted to join, and he offered to lend me demo Salomon spiked shoes – essential for snow – and a headtorch. So instead of lounging on my bed at 6.30 pm feeling – rightly – that it was 2 am, I was running along beautiful snow-covered trails along the mighty South Saskatchewan river with Harvey and another young woman who had turned up at short notice to keep us company. Saskatoon is known as the city of bridges, and we ran from one to the other and back again. It was so good that on Wednesday I did it again on Brainsport’s formal group running night. There were half a dozen groups going out, and of course I picked the trail one, only this time I got lost and caused an international incident, after I stopped to take a picture, got separated from the group and took the wrong trail. I knew my way back, more or less, but they didn’t know that I did. I made it back, and so did they, and looked extremely relieved that they hadn’t lost their British guest into the South Saskatchewan River weir: sorry, folks. They were thoroughly both forgiving and welcoming and I got to experience both Canadian trails I’d never have found and Canadians that I’d never have met otherwise. Running with a running club is the perfect antidote to the hotel-meeting-lonely dinner-hotel pattern that is most business trips.

2. Research

My hotel doesn’t have a gym. But I’m training to run the Three Peaks race again, and though I’m in the prairies, I need to get some hill training somehow. Short of driving hours to the Rockies, the only solution was a treadmill that inclined. So I began to research. Saskatoon city is currently running a scheme where you can get a two week free trial membership with lots of leisure centres. I didn’t feel it was particularly ethical to do that as I was only going to be in town for a week, but I emailed the nearest gym, the YWCA, and asked about day passes. It turns out that for $10 they would let me use the gym, pool and all facilities, and it was a short-ish walk over the bridge from my hotel. When I got there, I found a gym that was far better equipped than the one I use at home, with all sorts of intriguing machines (which I ignored, once I’d found the inclining treadmill and the weights area). I could have signed up for classes for my ten bucks a day but didn’t. I did the same thing in Toronto and found that Goodlife Fitness had an offer for three free visits, but their website never worked, and by that time I had a horrible cold and gyms were far from my mind.

3. Look for trial offers

I walked past a spin studio on my way back to the hotel one day, researched it and found that they were offering one trial class. That sounded like a perfect solution (see hill training requirements above) so I duly signed up for an early evening class. Then I duly succumbed to jet lag, had a late afternoon nap that lasted longer than it should have, and missed it. But it was a great idea in principle. Maybe try Groupon or similar for other class offers. Or approach studios directly, perhaps without mentioning the fly-by-night nature of your visit (see ethical point above).

4. Walk

Saskatoon is a car town. It is built around the car and though there are buses, I decided to be one of its few committed pedestrians. As my interview appointments have been all over the city, I’ve walked several miles a day. This has seen me walking on pavements where no other human seems to have set foot since autumn. And because of the record-breaking February temperatures this week (it should be minus 10, but it’s 8C), I walked through deep puddles, slush, and, alarmingly, lots of black ice. This may be my assumption, but it seems that gritting pavements is not a priority here. A Saskatonian told me that they don’t tend to fall because they start skating from a young age and have good ankle stability. I actually think they don’t fall because in winter they always travel by car. I didn’t fall either though I had several near-misses a day. I encountered a few hazards. The first: don’t ask locals how far it is to walk. They will invariably say “20 minutes,” but they have no idea because they mostly drive around the city. It never takes only 20 minutes. Another: during a long walk back from visiting a small charity in the north of the city, I was directed to walk straight down a long, long road to the river and to cross the bridge. Easy enough, and I had a lovely walk in beautiful sunshine, past industrial zones and then residential areas, up a bank to the CPR railway bridge, which has a pedestrian walkway. Except that the walkway consists of wooden boards nailed together, and the boards have gaps in through which you can see the rushing river sixty metres below. I set off with confidence, and a couple of minutes later my fear of heights kicked in and I walked the long, long bridge whimpering and talking to myself: “Don’t look down. Look ahead. Don’t look down. Look ahead.” Lesson: I prefer solid bridges. When I told my Saskatoon friends about this, they said, “you should try being on the walkway when a train goes past. Everything shudders and sways.” And I would probably have jumped into the river. The other hazard to walking around Saskatoon in a melt is the huge puddles that form on the road side of the kerb. It is a testament to the niceness of Canadians that I wasn’t splashed once.

The result of all this? I didn’t lose as much fitness as I’d feared. I saw lots of Saskatoon that I would otherwise have not seen from a car or a bus. And I lost five pounds in weight. For not much money at all.



Beamsley Beacon

It turns out that going to India for three weeks, then coming back and doing the Wharfedale Half Marathon, then going on a cruise for two weeks, is not good for maintaining hill legs. I had a great time on the cruise (I was accompanying my mother), and tried to keep as fit as possible. I twice ran five miles around the deck, even though the jogging track was only a tenth of a mile long. That’s over 50 times, people. I plotted to run ashore in Santorini, inspired by this post by Laura, but was foiled by the fact that the ship was anchored off-shore, people on booked excursions had priority in the tenders ferrying them ashore, and they weren’t going to the right place anyway. By the time any tenders were going to Fira, from where I was planning to run six miles to the end of the island and back again, it was 9.30 and 35 degrees. No way. I went to run around the jogging track instead, consoling myself that the views weren’t too shabby:


A very thin couple in their sixties, dressed in running kit, were up on the jogging track deck too, gazing at the island. I stopped to talk to them. He was Swiss, she was Dutch, and they wanted to run up the mountain. This mountain:


Even I wasn’t planning to do that. “It’s ridiculous,” the man said. “They give priority to fat people on tours, and fit people can’t do anything.” He was going to go anyway, once the tenders started. I didn’t see them again, so I hope they weren’t vaporized by the heat.

I also swam a lot, and did a few of the yoga and Pilates classes on the ship. They were held here, which is probably the nicest yoga studio I’ve ever done a class in:


But of course, this was a luxury cruise. Even if I ate lots of salads and fresh food, and even if we drove around beautiful Greek islands and stopped in village tavernas and ate wonderful feta and salad and bread and amazing olive oil, I also drank wine and ate all the desserts. There was a lot of this:


I got back on Tuesday, and on Wednesday did the Beamsley Beacon fell race. It’s a straight up and down, or supposed to be, departing from Addingham near Ilkley. I didn’t feel like I was in great form, not least as I’d forgotten to take my anti-depressants for a couple of days, and my mood was pretty fragile. But I went anyway, and we paid £5 for entry, in the race HQ (the pool room in a pub). The start was a milling in the street outside, we were going up, up and up, and then down. The route up would be clear, but the route back was self-navigated. Note that part.

There were 120 or so runners, and as soon as we set off, I thought, oh, this is going to be very hard. I’m going to be in the last dozen, and the way my legs felt, I could easily be in the back half of that dozen. It was a beautiful evening, but my legs felt leaden and slow. I walked half of the uphill, which I’d never have done at Three Peaks fitness. I wasn’t enjoying it, and for the first couple of miles seriously considered a DNF. But my pride stopped me: I’ve never done a DNF and wasn’t it better to run and come last rather than DNF?

I reached the top, touched the trig point, and set off after the man in front of me. I had no idea of the route down, just that I shouldn’t go back down the way I came, as that was longer. “You’ll have people to follow,” said FRB, because he didn’t realise how much fitness I’d lost, and how far back I would be. In fact, I could only see the one man in front, and put blind faith in him knowing the route. Mistake. After a while, we found ourselves running through a field at the bottom of someone’s garden. It was more of an estate, and the house was stunning, as I told the owner when he came out and told us, kindly, that we’d gone wrong and that we needed to go through the farm. So, reverse and through the farm. By this time a woman I’d been running behind and then in front of and then behind again, who ran with a really odd shuffle which was a lot faster than it looked, had joined me. So she was there when a blond woman came out of a driveway and started yelling at us. Really yelling. She was almost spitting with fury. This is what she said:


I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. The shuffling woman said, in broad Yorkshire, “I’m so sorry, oh that’s terrible, I’m very sorry,” to which the farmer replied:


Etc. I was trying to be calm with her too, as she obviously had legitimate grounds to be angry, if the race organizer hadn’t compensated her for the lost calf. But she just kept yelling and finally I lost my temper too, said, “What can we do about it?” then “take a bloody chill pill” (I wasn’t feeling articulate by that point) and ran off in dudgeon, then had to look stupid because I’d gone wrong again and had to run back to face her again. Finally we found the right route, and I realised I’d lost about six places, and was last. I couldn’t do much about that, as by being last I had to close all the gates, which lost me more time. I was upset – being yelled at had really thrown me – and weepy, and then we had to run through an extremely narrow, overgrown snicket, where you couldn’t see your feet. I hated it. That’s how I knew something was wrong with my hormones, because normally I’d have loved it.

Finally at one gate, the man I’d followed down mistakenly (who apologised for going wrong), offered to close the gate instead, and didn’t catch me up. With a better level of fitness, I’d have taken a couple of places, but I had no energy, I hated the race and wanted it to be over. It was, eventually, and I was second last, and I was furious and almost crying, so I headed straight for the pub toilets, then went to the car, hoping not to see anyone. But FRB followed me – he had seen my face as I ran to the finish and was worried – and tried to talk to me, before he understood that what I needed was to sit in the car and cry. So I did, and I calmed down, then joined people for the prize-giving, at which I learned that Joe Baxter of Pudsey and Bramley had been winning by a good margin, before he went colossally wrong too, and came fifth or sixth. The Beacon gets us all.

I didn’t much feel like running after that. Both the experience of running the race, and the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed it, were a shock. But on the Saturday I made myself get up and do Parkrun. I didn’t take a watch, and I just ran, and enjoyed it, and did a decent time (25:55). And on Sunday FRB and I went up to the moors around Ilkley and ran 12 miles through heather and past rocks and past runners racing the Bradford Millennium Way, and I wasn’t fast, but I loved running again. Now, back to training.


Leopards, camels, thorns: the Asola XC stage race, Delhi

It’s hot at 3.30am. I know that because at 3.30am I was sitting outside in the hotel gardens, waiting for my ride to the Asola XC race in Bhatti Mines wildlife sanctuary south of Delhi. A fellow runner named Rohit had offered via FB to give me a ride, but when he turned up, it was with a whole SUV full of runners. I was wide awake, weirdly, probably because I had barely slept: from 11pm to 12.30, then again from 1 to 3. When I’d booked a backup wake-up call, the woman had asked if I wanted coffee, and oh yes, I did, and it was delicious. So was the wake-up call, because it was delivered by another woman whose voice sounded like a morning cobweb covered with droplets of dew. Shiver. I’d managed to go the toilet, a big worry as I wasn’t sure what toilet facilities there would be. This was a complicated race, with people doing 20, 40 or 60km, and then some of those people also doing 40, 60 or 80km bike rides the next day. There were only 100 or so entrants and Chiro Mitra, one of the organisers, had done races before. One of his races, in the stunning looking Siti Valley up north, even featured in Conde Nast Traveler’s prettiest races in India, a very good resource which I have thoroughly book-marked. But you never know about toilets, do you?

I wasn’t hungry. This was a problem. I’d scoffed a pizza the night before, and my body thought we were still in the same eating period and I didn’t need any more, but my brain knew that to run 20K, with compromised fitness, I did. I ate half a tiny granola bar, made by the hotel chefs from some blend of nuts, seeds, sesame, something sticky, and fabulous. I’d been taking them away from the breakfast buffet for a couple of days, like a running squirrel. I managed to eat an apple. And that would have to do, although I knew this was a race where nutrition and hydration would be difficult to judge, because even if I felt hydrated, I couldn’t guarantee I would be, in 35 degrees of heat. The excellent coffee meant that I got in the car very perky and chatty, but it didn’t last. The lads chatted in Hindi, which was soothing, so I stayed quiet and watched early morning Delhi go past. It’s the first time I’ve ever travelled to a race with Sikh prayers being sung on the car radio. For fun, I tried to transpose the situation, trying to picture driving to a fell race with a car-full of young Yorkshire lads listening to Gregorian chants. I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t happen.

Delhi wasn’t quite awake. The pavement dwellers were asleep on the pavements, poor sods, and the roads were spacious and free, not clogged and cacophonic and horn-please (which is painted on the back of every truck) everywhere. Sangeeta, another of the organisers, had helpfully posted the map co-ordinates on the race’s Facebook page, even though the lads, like every taxi driver I’ve used on this trip. used sat-nav. They’d managed to get one with an Indian voice at least. I thought sat-nav mangling of street names couldn’t get worse than what mine does every time I take it to France, but then I got here and heard American robots trying to deal with Subramanian Barti Marg. The streets were clear enough that we got there quickly. I jumped out and got my bag out and started sorting things, then looked up to see two of the lads had lit cigarettes. It was such an unusual sight, I blurted out “Smoking runners?” and they looked embarrassed. “We’re not really runners. We’re cyclists.” That’s OK then. You don’t need lungs for cycling.

It was still dark, but people were gathering. There were men in shorts, and men in running kit, and men, men and men. I’d been told that eight women were running, but I didn’t know if they would turn up. Oh well. I’ve been stared at often over the past few weeks. Not just glanced at for longer than necessary, but proper, frank, “what the hell are YOU” lingering stares. What difference would another morning-ful make? In fact, of course, everyone was extremely friendly and charming and my paranoia was daft. Also, they had better things to do than notice women runners, like run absurdly long distances in pounding heat. The 40 and 60K runners would probably be about until mid-morning, when it would be blisteringly hot. Perhaps that’s why we’d been asked to be there in time for the start of the 40 and 60K race, as they were leaving at 4.45: so that we could see them off into the breach. Until then there was milling.

IMG_7864 There was one portaloo, which was clean and decent, though I had to step over curious horned cattle to get there. There was a bag drop (seen later in daylight): IMG_7925 There were women! I met Faizi, who said it was her first trail race, and saw a couple of other women too. I met Maneesh, who is from Nepal, and unlike Indians I’ve spoken to, had heard of Mira Rai. He also knew Richard who runs Trailrunning Nepal, who set me up to run with his flatmate Billi when I was in Kathmandu. There were introductions and handshakes, the 40K and 60K runners set off, and we milled some more, and then it was our turn. There were probably only about 50 of us, though Chiro will probably tell me differently. The running scene in India is growing, but it’s young. Here is a very good piece about it.

I had no idea how I would do. I had been sick for a few days with a stomach bug which I stupidly got from breaking my rule of never eating from buffets, even posh hotel ones. Even before that, I hadn’t run, as I’d seen a physio about my shoulder, still painful from my fall on Whernside many weeks ago, and she’d said to stop any forward or backward motion in my arm for a few days, which ruled out running and front crawl. On the Thursday and Friday before the race, I’d come very close to not running it. But, as FRB sensibly said, when am I going to get an experience like this again? So here I was, waiting in darkness, chatting to a man from Nepal. And then we were off.

The race was in Asola wildlife sanctuary. It’s a reserve that has been created from an old mining area. I’d met Chiro when I went to pick up my number, and he had said, casually, “well, people say there have been leopard sightings, but I don’t believe it. But you’ll probably see wild hares.” There was a 2.5 km run to the gate of the reserve, then another 7.5km to the turnaround point, whereupon we would loop back. The 40K and 60K runners simply did the loop two or three times. The track was dry and dusty, but fine to run on with road shoes, the only ones I’d brought to India. I’d also not got my club vest, but was winging it with a shirt in our club colours of purple and purple. I set off at a comfortable pace, and kept that up nicely. Now and then, I stopped to take photographs. I wasn’t at race fitness, so I may as well take advantage of running in a beautiful place. IMG_7921 Now and then I ran with people, and it was companionable. All of us against the elements. “It’s going to be tough after 7am,” one said to me. And with my best pep-talk head on, I said, “we’ll be done by 7!” (I wasn’t.) I kept an eye on the sides of the track for leopards, or hares, but nothing was up yet. There were brutal thorn bushes everywhere, but they could do nothing to me: I’ve been trained on Yorkshire brambles. Suddenly, there was a beautiful lake: IMG_7926There were water stations every 2.5K.I knew this from the marvellous route plan that Chiro had posted. Eclairs and love and more love. 13254034_10154270934194225_7048921463742031716_n IMG_7871 At each one, I poured water on my head, having read this piece about whether drinking or pouring water is better for hydration. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel overheated until the last 5K, when the sun was higher in the sky. Mostly, I felt fine and cool. I took ORS (oral rehydration solutions) at the first three water stations, calculating that it would replace energy gels. I’d tried to buy some at a sports store in Delhi and the lad looked at me like I had two heads. But after the third bottle of ORS, I realised my mistake. My guts started cramping, I started looking for good areas for open defecation, and I began to do my trusty anti-defecation reflexology on my left hand (you’ll have to read The Big Necessity or ask my clubmate Jill Buckley to know more). It worked, though I’d packed toilet roll in my backpack just in case. I only got lost once. Mostly the signage was a) eco and b) sufficient. rocks By now I was meeting the 60K and 40K runners who were heading back, then the faster 20K runners. Every one of them gave a wave or a thumbs up and some encouragement: All the best! Keep it up! Good running. It was wonderful. I did the same back, of course. I got to the 10K water station, ate half a biscuit, got sprayed with water by Chiro, and headed back. I was still feeling OK and not yet walking, but my time was slow. There were long stretches by now when I was on my own. I’d been on my own a bit on the way out too, and seen a group of young lads on motorbikes, which I wasn’t particularly happy about. Lone white woman in mini-skirt running through the bush encounters group of mobby boys on bikes. But they carried on on their early excursion and I was fine. I was happier at this sight: IMG_7920 The wildlife count then kept going up, though only to one peacock and two jackals. I passed fellow runners still heading for the turnaround, and offered one some of my magic granola bar. He took it then ran off calling “is it veg?” Only in India. By 15K, I was tired. It was getting hotter, my lack of fitness was showing, and I started walking bits. At the final checkpoint, 2.5K from the finish, I again poured water on my head, and the volunteer said, “No, don’t do that. Your body will heat up to compensate.” I said, but I’ve read research that shows your body absorbs water better this way and asked him why he thought differently. He said he’d spoken to a policeman on duty, and police are used to standing out in the sun all day, and the policeman was certain that the body heated up if water was poured on it. So, policeman and Runner’s World scientists, go and do battle.

I’d stuck my ego firmly in a box, but it was struggling to get out. I knew I was the second woman, and that Faizi was ahead. I also knew she had a green t-shirt, and I could see someone in a green t-shirt far ahead, on the final strait. For about five minutes, I got all excited about maybe being first woman, and caught up the green t-shirt. It wasn’t Faizi. By now my pace felt like it had quickened a bit, and there was only 1K to go, and I overtook some men, encouraging them to pick up the pace. Finally there were the cars, and the finish, and I sprinted to it with another runner. Sangeeta, one of the race organisers, put a medal around my neck. And what a medal. IMG_7918 IMG_7919 Then, water, and rest, and spiced buttermilk – the Indian version of protein shake – and more water. IMG_7923 Breakfast arrived from one of the race sponsors, but I still couldn’t eat anything. I think I had one crisp. The race was very satisfactory for my Yorkshire parsimony: I paid about £10 to enter, and got a medal, a t-shirt (in an XS size!) (that exclamation mark is because that never happens), food, drink, and love. We took photos, and cheered people home, and waited for the guy who had the car key. And waited, and waited. But eventually he arrived, we drove back to the hotel, and I ate 5kg of pancakes and slept the whole day. It was probably the slowest race I’ve ever run. 12.6 miles in 2:22. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to run a race with people I’d never normally run with, in a place I’d never normally encounter. It was fabulous. So fabulous, I broke a rule as powerful as my never-eat-from-buffets, and did a double thumbs up. FRB will never hear the end of it. So, a day of meeting great new running mates, going somewhere I’d never go before, and doing something on Saturday that on Friday I was convinced I couldn’t do. And the leopards stayed away.   IMG_7889 Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 16.26.03