Preparing for Everest: Interview with Lucy Rivers Bulkeley

When Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night”, he wrote it with Lucy Rivers Bulkeley in mind. This is one girl that simply does not know the meaning of taking it easy. And thank goodness for that – the world would be a whole lot more boring if she did.

Lucy accomplishes in one week what most of us would aim to do in a decade… or a couple of lifetimes. Since I’ve gotten to know Lucy, I can honestly say that my life has been blessed with more and more adventure, inspiration, hilarity and hangovers than ever before.  I’ve never known anyone to strike a better balance between sports, fun and work than Lucy – I just can’t figure out when she has time to sleep.  Lucy is the kind of girl you want around when you need a kick in the pants, a laugh in the midst of tragedy, a reality check, or an excuse not to take yourself too seriously. I’m privileged to know her and incredibly proud of what she is about to take on in a few weeks: a little mountain called Everest.

Training in Chamonix

Training in Chamonix

There’s no doubt that Lucy has the guts to make it to the top. As the 1st European woman to complete the 4 Desert Grand Slam (250km across Atacama, Gobi, Sahara & Antarctica), she is no stranger to challenges. She has also already summited Aconcagua, Elbrus, Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro in preparation for her Everest climb. But we’re still talking about the highest and most challenging mountain on earth. If she makes her goal of completing all seven summits – which, let’s be honest, she will – then she will become the first woman to have completed the 4 Deserts Grand Slam and the Seven Summits Challenge. Not too shabby there, Lucy.

Ultra Runner Girl: When did you decide to take on the Seven Summits? Was it a particular moment of inspiration or an idea that sat in the back of your mind for a while?

Lucy: I’d always loved the mountains and after completing the 4 Desert Grand Slam in 2010, I needed another challenge. It was an idea at the back of my mind until I met a couple of people who’d successfully climbed Everest….That was the start of the domino effect.

Ultra Runner Girl: Yes, but many people have heard and read about Everest – not everyone decides to do it! What is it that attracts you to climbing?

Lucy: I love the adrenaline buzz you get from climbing. You move at a much more sedate pace when climbing as compared to ultra running – far more “me”! Also, the feeling when you wake up in your tent above the clouds is pretty incredible.

Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc

Ultra Runner Girl: I bet! So how did you train for this? Have you had any scary moments so far?

Lucy: I’ve been concentrating on strength training along with Hydrofit (spinning in waist deep water) and running in an altitude chamber. We [me and the other climbers] had a team weekend in Chamonix, which was good for technical training. I’ve just come back from a weekend in Snowdonia where I was improving my rock climbing skills. Yeah, there were some pretty scary moments… but they were good practice for the Hillary Step.

[For the Everest virgins out there, Hillary Step is a 40 foot wall of rock and ice on the mountain where a dangerous bottleneck usually occurs on summit day, often causing the difference between success and failure, or even life and death].

Ultra Runner Girl: Hmm, will need to quiz you about this later! What do you think will be your biggest

Aconcagua

Aconcagua

challenges on the mountain (other than the obvious)?

Lucy: It will be a challenge to stay fit and healthy in the weeks before the summit push. It will also be difficult trying to keep the mind occupied during the endless hours spent at base camp. High up, I just hope my body copes with the extreme altitude and that we get a “weather window” long enough to make a summit attempt.

[Winds can blow up to 200 mph on the top of Everest with temperatures plummeting to -80F. However, in mid-May, the jet stream that sits on the top of Everest all year starts to move north, which calms the winds and warms the temperature. This brief period of time is called the "summit window"].

Ultra Runner Girl: Tell us about some of your kit. You must be using some pretty technical gear!

Lucy: Rab have kindly sent me one of their prototype down suits to test. My double boots, crampons and ice axe RABare already en route to Nepal. I’m not renowned for packing lightly and have already sent a 20kg bag ahead which will be waiting for me at base camp…hopefully!

Ultra Runner Girl: Take us through your route and the schedule.

Lucy: We are flying to Kathmandu on April 5th and then on to Lukla on the 8th. From there it is a nine-day walk into base camp via Namache Bazaar, Pangboche, Pheriche and Lobuche. If all goes to plan, we’ll then have the Puja (blessing of all our technical gear) at base camp on the 17th.

Ultra Runner Girl: What is going to keep you going during the tough moments?

Lucy: I do all my challenges to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in memory of my father who died in 2007 from cancer. He lived life to the full and he will be with me the whole way.

Ultra Runner Girl: What will be the first thing you will do once you’re back down in lower altitude? (Other than celebrate)

Lucy: Have a very large Vodka and tonic and a long hot bath….in that order!

Ultra Runner Girl: How do you top this one? What is next after climbing the highest mountain on earth?

Lucy: I think it’ll be pretty hard to top, but worryingly there are already plans being hatched for another challenge afterwards.

Ultra Runner Girl: [Note to self: follow up with Lucy on her post-Everest adventure] When do you expect to finish the seven summits?

Lucy: I haven’t set a timeframe, but I would love to finish in the next couple of years. All fingers crossed I will be standing on the summit of Everest sometime in May, along with the rest of my climbing team.  I’m very lucky that we’re a small team who all knew each other before the trip. When we were in Chamonix together, we had to strip and change in the lift car park as we were running late. I think that was rather a good ‘team bonding’ moment!

If you think Lucy is as awesome as she sounds, believe me, she is even better. Please consider lending your support and making a donation to Macmillan Cancer Support through her online fundraising page. To follow Lucy’s trip, please click here.

Good luck, Lucy! We’ll be with you the whole way. Just please come back safe – we need you here to keep us on our toes, laughing the whole way. Thank you for inspiring us all to keep on not walking.

Running in Mingkamman

Kawadja! Kawadja!

Fine dust sprays up around my feet as I run down the dirt path through the ‘camp’, weaving my way around collections of mosquito nets strung from trees and sheets of plastic stretched around bamboo sticks. It isn’t light enough yet for me to make out details other than shapes around me, but the young kids are still able to see my glowing white legs moving through the darkness.

Kawadja! Kawadja!

I smile and wave at the direction of the excited voices, not exactly sure who is shouting, but I know DSCF0049they are shouting at me. Kawadja means ‘white person’ in Dinka, the local language. Although there are a few white-skinned humanitarian workers here in Mingkamman, it isn’t common to see the Kawadja on foot in the area, especially not at that time of day. And especially not running. I feel like I am part celebrity, part freakshow, but all novelty. The adults usually stare at me with a confused look, trying to figure out why on earth anyone – let alone a Kawadja – would be unnecessarily expending so much energy in 35-40C heat. But as soon as I smile at them, I always get a bemused double eyebrow raise or a chuckle in return. Some take immense pleasure in mimicking my strange running motion, making fun of my movements as if I’m performing an exotic dance. I don’t blame them – with my neon gear, shiny watch, camelback and fancy shoes, I must look pretty odd.  Kids will run up to me at full speed and then stop about ten feet away as if there is a forcefield around me.  I might as well be wearing a sign that says Please don’t feed the Kawadja!  The reaction is always friendly and curious… unless we are talking about anyone under the age of about 2 or 3. They simply burst into tears at the sight of my fluorescent skin.

It is amazing how peaceful it feels here. There are somewhere between 60000 and 80000 people displaced by the conflict in Bor who have fled here to Mingkamman and camped out in temporary locations along the Nile. Humanitarian actors are here assisting with access to shelter (aka plastic sheeting), water, food and services such as education and medical care, but it isn’t enough to meet the needs of the population. Sanitation is poor, to say the least. And with the rainy season looming, it will only get worse. We are all temporarily stationed on low-lying areas, which will likely flood in the coming few weeks, requiring at least 50,000 people to move a few kilometers inland to a new site that is currently being developed. It is a race against the weather gods and we aren’t yet sure if they will be kind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been getting up at sunrise (exactly 1 hour and 8 minutes after the first rooster crows) for a run every morning since I arrived here. It is hot and I’m tired already, but clinging to some sort of routine will be key here to maintaining my sanity. I run through the ‘camp’ for 2.2 km, past the water points and the Medecins Sans Frontiers tent, past the cows and the burning pile of garbage, until I reach the main dirt road that leads to Juba. I started off turning left down the road towards the sun, but the wild dogs in the area found me and have resolved to block my way. So I now turn right and run with the rising sun on my back towards the market area, where trucks unload goods from Juba for sale at the stalls. At the end of the market is when I finally get some peace and quiet, away from the stares and the Kawadja cheers. I can’t go far as I need to be back in time to line up for bucket showers at my compound before work, but I can always squeeze in about five minutes on this quiet stretch of road. By the time I get back home aka tent city, I will have only done about 7km. It is not much, but it is enough… for now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My home…

I have been referring to this site as a ‘camp’ because it isn’t really that – it is just a place where people have settled temporarily. There has been much resistance to formally setting up a camp because of how close we are located to the fighting in Bor, from where people have fled. To establish a camp is to imply that some kind of safety and security can be provided… and we simply can’t do that here.  No one wants to set up something semi-permanent because those who have been displaced would like to return home or go on to Juba if they can.  However, reality says that returning back to Bor is not going to be possible any time soon and it is unclear what will happen in Juba. And when the rains come, the roads will be impassable and we will be cut off from the capital. New sites are being built and while ‘camp’ remains a forbidden word, that is what they will be for all intents and purposes…

DSCF0054The displaced population here is entirely Dinka, which is the same ethnic group as the government, so we are vulnerable to attack from the rebels. It is not uncommon to see members of the army (SPLA) here in the area (along with the occasional  civilian armed with an AK47…sigh). This morning on my run, I saw a group of men being loaded into an army truck – apparently former SPLA members who had left, but are now returning and had stopped for the night on their way from Warrap State to Juba.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have electricity a few hours a day when the generator is turned on, and internet (occasionally) from the humanitarian hub, which is about a 5 minute walk away… It is extremely basic living conditions, it is hot, and it is very buggy. But I’m surviving and I’m running. And the sunsets are spectacular. Life isn’t so bad! Then again, it is only day five…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks for reading x

Arriving in South Sudan

I arrived in South Sudan only a few days ago, eager to get my first few glimpses of Africa’s – and the world’s – newest country.

I remember well the day that South Sudan gained its independence. I was in New York at the time, working for a diplomatic advisory group that had been advising the South Sudanese leadership through the country’s succession and process of gaining membership to the United Nations. Diplomats from missions around the globe and South Sudanese representatives alike were visibly excited. Even stone-faced UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon cracked a smile. But the celebrations in New York paled in comparison to the outpouring of emotion that took place back in South Sudan.

In Juba, the capital of the new country, people poured into the streets at midnight, waiving flags, singing and dancing with sheer joy. (Anecdotally, as I learned this week, there were those in the South who cried at the breakup of their country). It had been a long, hard struggle for the South Sudanese to gain independence and their day had finally come. Their fight for rights and control from Sudan pre-dated Sudan’s independence from Britain itself.  The southern movement for independence led to a rebellion in the 60s and again in the 80s. The response from the central government was brutal to say the least, resulting in extreme displacement, deaths and suffering. It wasn’t until the US focused its foreign policy on Sudan in 2005 that progress was finally made (before you ask, yes, Sudan has oil).  The US’s efforts culminated in the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the two sides, which hatset the stage for southerners to vote for or against independence in a referendum.  (The US’s influence on the creation of South Sudan is still evident today. Just take one look at its President, Salva Kiir, who is rarely seen without his signature Texas-style cowboy hat, a gift from the former US President).

Hopes were extraordinarily high for South Sudan. Compared to its neighbour to the north, which is still run by a President indicted by the International Criminal Court, South Sudan was seen to hold great promise.  It made sense to the international community that it should be independent. Whereas the Sudanese population is primarily Muslim and Arab-dominated, the South is mostly animist and Christian. The countries were completely distinct religiously and even geographically, with Sudan consisting mostly of desert and South Sudan being much more lush by comparison – you can even see the line marking the transition from brown to green from satellite images.

map

Generally speaking, it is extremely difficult for any population or territory achieve succession. The international system is designed to preserve the integrity of states. However, what made South Sudan unique was that it had a history of being treated as a separate and distinct region from the north by the British when effectively under colonial rule, which helped to set a precedent.

The international community was completely invested in South Sudan… and perhaps we were all a bit naïve about the immense challenges that the country would face. But no one expected the level of violence and chaos that has taken hold here over the past few months, just 2 ½ years after independence.

Basic Facts

Now that I’ve introduced you to a bit of the history of the country, let’s cover some basic facts before delving into the current situation.  South Sudan is one of the poorest countries on earth.  While it has experienced a certain influx of investment following independence, its GDP remains one of the lowest and it has only a 27% literacy rate.  As I have discovered first-hand running around Juba’s streets, there are only 35 miles of paved road in the entire country. South Sudan’s economy was once based on subsistence agriculture, but it is now highly oil-dependent. One of the main sources of tension with Sudan centres around the sharing of oil revenues. Although the majority of oil reserves in the former Sudan are located in now-South Sudan, the refineries and the pipelines are all in the north (in Sudan proper), which has created a highly volatile situation. Oil production is reportedly down 30% since the violence broke out.

The current conflict

On 15 December 2013, seemingly out of the blue (but in hindsight perhaps not), violence broke out in the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA – South Sudan’s army), the details of which are still unclear. This single event triggered ethnic tensions and fighting between the Dinkas, the ethnic group of the current President, and the Nuers, the ethnic group of the former Vice-President, Riek Machar. President Kiir had dismissed Machar as his vice president earlier in the year and fired his entire cabinet, which should have been forewarning to all of growing tensions.

Within a matter of days, tens of thousands of individuals became displaced by the conflict and turned to the UN mission – UNMISS – for protection. In an unprecedented move, the UN opened up its bases to the internally displaced persons (IDPs), where thousands are still camped out today.   There are new arrivals in some areas still on a daily or weekly basis, depending on the shifting patterns of fighting.  Machar has become the de facto leader of the rebels fighting against the government forces and the situation is extremely fluid. Some towns have changed hands four or five times, which has really impacted who needs assistance and protection at what time – and from whom. From what I’ve learned so far on the ground, the intense hatred that has emerged between ethnic groups runs deeply… and the fact that one’s ethnicity is hard (if not impossible) to hide creates much fear amongst the displaced populations. Not only to the Nuer and Dinka speak different languages, but they are often visibly distinct, with the Nuer having horizontal tribal markings on their forehead and the Dinka having “v-shaped” markings.

Photo credit: CNN

Photo credit: CNN

The area where I will be based from Wednesday onwards is called Awerial in Lakes State, in a town called Minkammen.  While it is difficult to estimate numbers at this point due to IDP flows, there were at one time 75000 IDPs in the area who had arrived by boat. Most are coming from Bor, where there has – and continues to be – intense fighting, which is about 20 km up the river. No camp has been established for the IDPs due to the proximity to the conflict, so most people are just living in the open in about a 5 km area, spread out under the few trees available.

Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

I had the chance this week to visit the IDP camps in Juba (renamed “protection of civilian” sites on account of the fact that they are in the UN bases). I was amazed at the resourcefulness of the camp’s residents – shisha shops, restaurants, and little stores have popped up, run by some of the more ‘wealthy’ IDPs.  But as the conflict continues, and as we head into the rainy season in a few weeks, personal resources will dry up and even the ‘wealthy’ IDPs will become more and more reliant on the international community for assistance. Food distribution can be complex – those who are most vulnerable should receive priority, but it is often very difficult to make sure this happens.  Medical treatment is basic, but essential in the camps.  For some, even heading outside the camps to the government-run hospitals in town presents too much of a risk (and based on recent reports, for good reason). At every stage, the IDP communities themselves should be – and hopefully are – involved in the planning and decision-making process concerning their well-being… but we are still in emergency mode and much of what we as humanitarians end up doing should really be called crisis management.

DSCF0013

I hope to be able to share with you my thoughts and experiences, to the extent possible (in view of protection and confidentiality concerns), about what is happening on the ground. I feel it is important for those on the outside to be informed about what is happening here. It is true that there are many other conflicts going on in the world right now that may be overshadowing South Sudan in the news, but what little I can put out there, I will.

So, how am I going to deal with the emotions, pressure and stress of working in the context of this emergency?  The same way I deal with any stress in life: by getting up every day, putting on my running shoes, and moving forward… I have only managed 30 minute runs at this point in the heat, but every bit will help. I fly out to Awerial on Wednesday and hope to scope out the running situation there. If I could do it in Afghanistan, surely I can do it here.

DSCF0005

Happy trails everyone, and enjoy that next hot shower for me!

The ICE Ultra: Race Report

I felt like I was running through Christmas. The pine trees lining the forest trail curved over me in a protective arch, weighed down by mounds of snow perching on their branches. I tried to pay attention where I was going, but I kept getting distracted by falling snowflakes glittering under the light of my headtorch. If you stared at them too closely, they looked like strings of tiny pearls dancing in all directions, which was mesmerizing to say the least.  If it wasn’t for the steam rising from my arms and chest, I would have forgotten entirely that I actually existed in the midst of this winter wonderland. It was too magical, too other-worldly, too intoxicating for human consumption. So this is the Arctic, I thought, as I tried to propel my body forward faster than my ice-laden snowshoes would allow. This is actually kind of fun.

I’ve always hated the cold. Nothing about running noses, frozen toes, and chapped lips has ever really appealed to me. But when an opportunity came up to compete in Beyond the Ultimate’s ICE Ultra, I knew I had to do it. Having conquered mountain and desert ultras, I knew that cold weather races would have to be my next big challenge… as much as I wished to avoid them.

ICE ultra

Belinda and I getting cozy with the reindeer pelts!

The ICE Ultra is a 4 stage, 230 km ultra stage race across UNESCO World Heritage sites, Swedish Lapland and the Arctic Circle. The course crosses through terrain ranging from ice forests to frozen lakes and snowfields. It is one of the few multi-stage, self-supported Arctic footraces in the world with temperatures normally reaching -30C. The ICE Ultra is just one of four races in Beyond the Ultimate’s complete ultra series.  It differs from the others mainly in terms of the amount of gear required to withstand the brutal temperatures. While competitors must carry all of the clothing they need for racing, their food, and their medical equipment, the organizers transport the heavy-duty items – such as sleeping bag and warm camp clothing – in between campsites.

This year was the first year the ICE Ultra has taken place, which meant that there were bound to be a few surprises for racers and organizers alike. And there were. Temperatures were unseasonably – freakishly – warm for this time of year in Sweden, ranging from -10C to just below freezing, which caused a number of logistical challenges. Initially, I was celebrating the warmer weather as I thought it would mean a better chance of keeping all of my fingers and toes. However, as I soon discovered, warm weather was actually much worse for a couple of reasons. First, it made the snow really sticky and clumpy, which meant that snowshoes were a MUST. None of us had planned to run the whole 230 km in snowshoes, so it was quite a shock to our legs and feet! Second, there was a higher chance that we would sweat in these warmer conditions, which can be quite dangerous in the Arctic. Sure, you can last an hour or two in the cold wearing sweaty clothes, but once you hit three, four, seven hours, damp clothes can lead to hypothermia easily and quickly. In the cold weather, it is much easier to cool down and let the sweat evaporate quickly, which allows you to stay warmer over the long run.

Day one began with a race briefing and a gear check. It was organized chaos as we all tried to figure out what to start linebring with us in our backpack (apart from our mandatory gear) and what to leave in our camp bags. The trouble was that once something went in the camp bag, it was off limits for the rest of the race (during the racing portions of the day). We all nervously hopped between rooms in the cabin, comparing kit and seeking last-minute advice from the few individuals who were experienced Arctic racers. Before we knew it, it was noon and time to start.

ICE ultraStage one came as a bit of a shock to all of us, but especially to those who were new to multi-stage racing. None of us expected to have to rely on snowshoes and it was tough going for the full 46 km over snowy trails and slushy frozen lakes. After too many hours, we limped in one by one to the first campsite, dreading our first night shivering and cold in our reindeer decorated teepees. Much to our delight, the race organizers decided to forgo the tents for proper wood cabins so that we could have a chance to dry our clothes and sleep before the next day’s stage. And thank goodness they did. In my cabin alone, two of the racers were throwing up in the night in truly epic fashion, which certainly added some drama to the event. As I looked around the room during ‘dinner’ time, I saw the same expression staring back at me through flickering candle light: it’s going to be a long four days.

Given the conditions, stage two had to be rerouted at the last minute. Instead of climbing up and over a mountain, which would have been next to impossible in our snowshoes, we ran another 40 km through the forest to the second campsite. The last 8 km were blissfully on road, giving us the only section of the entire race where it was possible to run in just our shoes. I can’t tell you how liberating it was to unstrap myself from my modern tennis rackets and bolt down the street – I felt like superwoman!  Until the Arctic air caught up with me, that is, and sent me into a coughing spasm…

The camaraderie during these first two stages was fantastic. I was typically in about 6th to 8th place in the field of ICE ultra 220+ runners, trailing British Ed in the lead and then the uber-fit Spanish contingent behind him. I have to say, following a group of Spaniards has to be about the best place to be in any race.  They are always smiling, ready to lend a hand (or a pole to clean off your snowshoes), and quick to cheer you on at checkpoints. There were a number of times I would stagger into a checkpoint, only to be greeted by my own personal cheering squad. “EEEEEEEH STEPHANIE!!” It put a smile on my face every time and I would end up leaving the checkpoint a little quicker than I had arrived.

Stage three was my low point and my toughest day by far. From an objective point of view, it was the least interesting stage of the race. For much of it, we were running across an endless, flat frozen lake, so there was nothing really to distract us from the cold in our feet or the pain in our legs. The runners ahead disappeared into the midst, which was a constant reminder of how much further there was to go. My head wasn’t really in the game yet to begin with, and the monotony of the course made things worse. I suppose in my efforts to just push through the day, I didn’t pay enough attention to my hydration, and before I knew it I was starting to feel the effects. My mood started to wane and my emotions started to seep out every pore. I kept moving, of course, but every part of me wanted to give up ICE ultra 6and go home to my family (more on that later). When I got to one of the last checkpoints, Brett and Louise, two members of the medical team, asked how I was doing and I started to choke back the tears. They encouraged me to just let it out and I took them up on their offer, letting out one of the most pathetic whimpers I’ve had in a long while. I didn’t dare shed a tear in front of the local Swedish Samis (hard as nails they are!!!), but I figured I was safe to let my guard down in front of the medics.

As it turns out, I didn’t have nearly as bad of a day as one of the other competitors. Mike, a cheerful German runner who lives in the mountains, collapsed at one of the checkpoints with a combination of dehydration and hypothermia, giving everyone quite a scare. His heart actually stopped for a few moments, and as a result, he was helicoptered out from the course and taken immediately to the closest hospital. Luckily, he was okay, but it certainly gave us all pause. This race was no joke and even the most experienced competitors were at risk of succumbing to the elements.

helicopter

I can honestly say that when I woke up on the morning of the long stage, I was actually scared of what was to come.  What the heck was I doing out there miles from civilization, running around in sub-zero temperatures on snowshoes, while others were collapsing in tents with heart failure?? Perhaps I had done it. Perhaps I had finally crossed over the ‘crazy line’. As I sat around waiting for my start time, biting the ends of my frozen fingernails, I contemplated pulling the plug right then and there. I fantasized about burying my snowshoes under a mound of white powder and riding to the finish line in Jokkmokk on the back of a snowmobile….ICE ultra 9

I am not sure what happened. But that last stage turned out to be the most enjoyable. It was as if on that last day something clicked and I finally got my head in the game. I stopped caring about all of the things that could go wrong and started noticing all of the things that were pretty damn amazing. I was running through the Arctic Circle for goodness sake. How many times would I ever get to experience that?!  The checkpoints went by with relative ease and I diligently kept up with my hydration. In fact, I did a little too well on that front and ended up overhydrating, resulting in rather hysterical-looking man-sized paws for hands, which raised a few eyebrows from the medics.

ICE ultra 8The scenery on that last day was simply stunning. We ran through watercolour paintings of slate greys, navy blues, pale yellows and purple-tinted whites.  The sun poked through the clouds for the first time in days, giving us a sense that there was something to look forward to on the horizon. I loved every minute. Perhaps because I knew it was my last chance to experience this part of the world, I savoured the seconds and even took the occasional pause to stop and stare at the sky in silence.

By the time I finished the stage, I was elated – and starving. Despite not being a red meat eater (ever), I scarfed down three pieces of questionable-looking reindeer pizza at the finish line, along with enough cookies and cakes to feed a small army. I had done it. I had survived the Arctic!

I wound up in 1st female position and 6th overall. It was a small women’s field, but each of the other female ICE ultra 5competitors were truly incredible in their own right. Camilla, a Danish runner who teaches outdoor survival and adventure racing, had won previous Beyond the Ultimate events and finished the Grand Slam at the ICE Ultra. Sally was a world record holder from the UK, having smashed the record for fastest cumulative ten marathons in ten days for women. And finally, there was my dear friend Belinda, whom I’ve raced with in Namibia, Nepal and the Alps, to name a few. I could go on for pages about the incredible talents of this woman – not only does she have three kids, but also a six pack under her shirt and an ironman or three under her belt. It was such an honour to run with these ladies!

No race report would be complete without mention of the after party… However, between the Sami moose calls, the bear-straddling, and the questionable shot combinations at the bar, all I can say is what happens in Jokkmokk, stays in Jokkmokk. Best post-race party I think I’ve ever had. Enough said.ICE ultra 7

The race organizers had a tough event to run in terms of logistics and there were certainly a few hiccups, but all in all, I’d say they fared pretty well. And it can only get better from here as they run more events. Would I do it again? Hard to say. I still hate the cold and I’m happy to have ticked the box… but I’ve learned never to say never. I have a sinking suspicion there are more cold weather races for me in store. Sigh, it’s a disease, isn’t it?

And now for my next adventure: South Sudan. In a couple of days, I will be moving to Awerial, South Sudan, to live in a tent for at least six months. I will be taking the position as Emergency Protection Manager for the International Rescue Committee, assisting the 75000+ internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled (and are still fleeing) the conflict in Bor. I only found out about the post on the morning of my flight to the Arctic, which perhaps explains why I had trouble concentrating during the race!  I am nervous and, okay, a bit scared of what is to come. It is going to be an incredible challenge. Not only will it be emotionally taxing, but it is sure to be physically tough.  Packing alone has been a nightmare as I will only get a break every three months from Awerial. How does one estimate what one will need living in a tent for three months at a time without access to stores or modern amenities? Will I be safe in a tent in the middle of a camp for IDPs? Will I be terribly lonely? How will I find food if even the World Food Program has problems of access to the area? These are all questions swimming through my head, to which I will find no answers until I arrive…

…but I’m ready for the challenge. After a long 4+ months of searching, I finally am employed again. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but perhaps it is what was supposed to happen. Perhaps this was all a part of the plan. The open circle created by my breakup last fall has finally closed and I have moved on with new friends, incredible memories, and renewed strength to follow my dreams and passions. I am apprehensive, excited, and overwhelmed by the challenge ahead… but I will take it on as I take on any ultra. One step at a time.

And as scary as it is, I know I can say at least I’m not walking.

Please continue to message, comment and follow along as I will be blogging and emailing as much as I can from the field. I hope to keep you informed about what is going on, just as much as I do about running…. And your support will be very much appreciated. See you on the flipside!

Braving the Cold: Heading to the ICE Ultra

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” 
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

I’m writing from yet another airport, staring at my bags of gear strewn around me and listening to the chatter of travellers sipping their overpriced Starbucks coffee and complaining of travel delays. If I closed my eyes for long enough, I might forget which airport it is that I’m sitting in. Hong Kong? Brisbane? New York? Vancouver? This will be my fourth continent in two weeks and my body is absolutely exhausted (with a fifth likely to come at the end of the month – more on that later). In between travelling (and running), I’ve been going through more rounds of job interviews at weird hours, sitting job-related written tests, and trying to get out an academic article on the side. I barely know what day it is, let alone time zone, and my head is in a billion different places.

But it is time to get focused.  I’m currently en route to the ICE Ultra in Swedish Lapland (with any luck). Storms throughout the northeastern US have sent my flights into chaos, but with any luck I will still make it there.  I have made it to Frankfurt and should land in Lulea, Sweden sometime this afternoon and then transfer to base camp in Kvikjokk!

The race is 230km over just four stages, which is considerably shorter and more intense than the other multi-day races in which I have competed. All of the stages are longer than a marathon and the longest stage reaches a whopping 90km.  It is a self-supported race, meaning that competitors are required to carry all of their essential clothing, food, and medical supplies on their back.  And the equipment list is seriously intense, including everything from green needles and scalpel blades to face masks and snowshoes. The only saving grace is that the race organizers are transferring are majorly bulky gear, such as a -40C-rated sleeping bag and warm dry clothing, in between camps for us, negating the need to pull a sled around the course.

I’ve only had a few days since returning from Hong Kong and Australia to put my gear together, which has consisted of equal measures of panic and hilarity.  I have discovered that ripping up old pillowcases to try to make a triangular bandage is not nearly as effective as sewing together pieces of cheesecloth (much lighter and takes up less space). Asking a pharmacist for scalpel blades requires a rather lengthy explanation, and once you say “I need them for a race through Swedish Lapland”, he or she will immediately assume you are incapable of handling sharp objects. I’ve learned that tampons make great fire starters and rolos are easier on the teeth than mars bars in cold climates (the caramel insides won’t freeze).  I’ve also discovered, to my dismay, that my running shoes are most definitely too tight, which means that I will be heading into frostbite territory during the race.

On the plus side, I’ve tested out wearing different ridiculous fuzzy hats around town (erm, and around the DSCF0072bars in Hong Kong) and found that with the right smile, they might just be possible to pull off in even the most fashionable of settings. But the most fun I’ve had over the past week has been testing out my new running snowshoes. My god, if you don’t have a pair, BUY SOME. Even if you don’t have snow. Because they simply rock.

A couple of times this week I strapped on my shiny new and slightly modified tennis rackets and headed out on the frozen lakes of Canada for a little snowshoe practice. I was expecting them to be extremely clunky and awkward, but to my delight, they were entirely manageable. Running snowshoes differ from regular snowshoes in that they are narrower (to allow for less bow-legged running) and lighter (to reduce the load on the legs). The ones I’m wearing - Atlas Run - have spring-loaded suspension and quick release bindings, which make for some serious fun hopping around the snow. I had visions that my snowshoes would allow me to gracefully skirt along the top of the snow, gliding along like a winter gazelle, smiling and waving at the wildlife IMG_4527as I trotted along. As it turns out, snowshoes really just allow you to sink into the snow at a slower rate and leave bigger holes behind. Instead of mimicking a graceful winter gazelle, I think I channeled a slightly disabled polar bear, crashing and careening around, kicking up snow all around me.  And hysterically laughing the entire way.

When you race in the desert, you have to learn how to read the sand. You need to be able to figure out where the hard spots are and where the sinkholes are, and hopefully avoid the latter. Running through the snow is the same and unfortunately I have not yet mastered this technique. I may be attempting to read the snow, but it appears to be written in another language. I am stumbling over molehills and fumbling my way into surprise snowbanks.  But I figure that I have a full 230 km to sort it out!

Why am I doing this? It is a good question. I hate the cold. I always have. But hey, once you’ve conquered cottage running 2desert races and mountain races, aren’t the arctic races the next step? And as the quote says, perhaps it will make me appreciate the warm all that much more.

And it seems that my next move may be to somewhere much, much warmer… But I’ll save that for a post after the race is done. One adventure at a time!

Please, please do send messages of support to me during the race. Just email theiceultra@gmail.com.  The more, the merrier!!! Jokes, quotes, simple words of encouragement… Anything helps.

You can follow along with updates on the race blogfacebook and twitter.

Last request – if you like following my blog, please consider nominating me for another top blogging award from BreakingMuscle! I need to be among the top twenty nominated in order to go to the judges’ panel. Just post a quick comment here and that’s all you have to do!

Wish me luck. Cross your fingers and toes I’ll make it through. Or that I’ll make it out with MY fingers and toes!

cottage running 3

Vibram HK100 Race Report: Channeling my inner “Cheng”

Vibram HK100 Race Report: Channeling my inner “Cheng”

As I stood on the start line of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 km race, I felt something I had never felt before a race: calm.  Normally when I line up for a race, my stomach is churning, my pulse is racing, and I’m struggling to control my breath. This time, however, things were different.  The worried, slightly panicky Stephanie Case was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a much calmer, happier and excited runner named Agnes Cheng.

HK100 start

I decided to try to run the HK100 only about 10 days before the race. I was in New York City at the time, battling -20C weather and longing for a break from the Arctic conditions. After a few months of unsuccessful job searching, my spirits were sinking faster than the winter temperatures. On one particularly freezing day when I was running around a deserted Central Park, blinking away the icicles that were forming on my eyelashes, I realized I needed to make a move. I needed somewhere warmer, somewhere happier, and somewhere inspiring. I  booked a trip to Hong Kong as soon as I came back to my apartment.

Having left Hong Kong in October broken-hearted, perhaps it was a rather odd choice to return.  I was a bit unsure of what painful memories might be uncovered, but I was eager to see my friends and get out on those beautiful trails. The fact that the Vibram HK 100 km race would be taking place during my time there cinched the deal for me. I wanted to start 2014 right, and a race seemed like the perfect way to do it.

Unfortunately, getting a spot was tricky. I had tried to get an entry last year, but was too late – all 1600 spots sold out within just a few hours.  This year, the HK100 km marked the start of the new Ultra Trail World Tour, so it’s popularity was not surprising. It was clear that the only way I would get to race would be to get an entry from someone who was already registered…

Running a race without registering, or ‘bandit’ running, is controversial.  If you enter a race without a bib then you are taking up space on the trail for those legit runners who actually paid the fee. Not cool. However, in this case, I was taking a bib from someone who had paid the fee – my friend Agnes Cheng – but couldn’t make it to the race. Sometimes it is possible to officially transfer a bib, but unfortunately, in this race it wasn’t. This meant that there were quite a few last minute ‘unofficial’ transfers, with some runners (including myself), running under a pseudonym. I’m not saying this practice should be condoned by any means, but it was certainly not uncommon (totally not justifying it – I did apologize to the organizers in the end… read below!).

DSC00139

I hadn’t run more than about 20 km at one time since UTMB last August, so I figured I would just be running ‘for fun’ somewhere middle of the pack. Maybe I wouldn’t even finish. It didn’t really matter to me – I just wanted to run.  Without expectation, pressure or worry, I spent the days leading up to the race completely relaxed. I did everything I wouldn’t normally do before a race: did some hard hill runs and strained my glutes, caught up with friends over (too much) wine, and got way too little sleep. I rocked up on race day wearing a collection of borrowed gear and a huge smile on my face. I was so excited about a full day of running ahead that I really didn’t care about anything else.  Agnes Cheng was going to have some serious fun out there.

DSC00149The HK100 involves a cumulative elevation gain of 4500m.  The first half is considered to be “fairly flat” and fast relative to the second half, which has a few serious hills, culminating in the final climb up Tai Mo Shan at 957m. The race starts in Pak Tam Chung on the Sai Kung Peninsula, which is about a 45 min taxi ride from Hong Kong Central. The course covers some truly stunning scenery, which helps to take your mind off of the constant burning sensation in your legs!  Much of the race takes place on the Maclehose Trail, with some diversions and additions.

DSC00151 DSC00153

I didn’t really study the course ahead of time, so I was happy to run along and be surprised.  Starting out, my legs felt light and my heart was pumping steadily. I steadily dodged and weaved my way through the crowd, chatting with friends as I went, and tried to tap into the collective excitement that we all felt out there on the trail. The sun was shining and the day was full of promise.

I breezed through the first support point (not to be confused with Check Point 1), and worked my way over the first good climb of the day – Sai Wan Shan at 314m. The pack was starting to spread out at this point and I was able to get into a rhythm.  After Sai Wan Shan, the course took us across two gorgeous white-sand beaches to Check Point 1 at 21 km.

Over the next 31 km to the halfway point, we ran through villages, over rocky technical trails, and along coastal paths. My legs moved underneath me with an ease that I hadn’t felt in months, if not almost a year. It reminded me of some of my first runs in Vancouver when I came out of Afghanistan and the stress of living in a war zone had been lifted. The emotional stress of the past few months fell away from my shoulders, slid down my back, over my hamstrings and calves, and onto the dirt floor beneath where it belonged…. And it left me feeling weightless. I’m sure from the outside, I was

HK100.1 still running as clumsily and stiffly as ever. But from the inside, I felt like a fast-flowing stream of water, gliding over rocks and roots without a moment’s hesitation.

Sometimes in a race, instead of following my watch, I try to gauge how I’m doing by comparing myself to runners that seem to be of similar running ability.  For entertainment and classification purposes, I tend to give these other runners nicknames. So, for the first half of the course, I jockeyed between super-tanned neck, neon-socks-man, Salomon-ghost (man decked out in entirely white Salomon gear) and the-downhill-bomber.  I didn’t really know how I was doing overall in the race, but I didn’t care. I was keeping up with my motley crue of nicknamed characters and that was good enough for me.  I was loving running as Agnes.

sophia tamAt around the 35 km point, I noticed a very distinctive little pixy of a runner decked out in North Face gear up ahead on the trail. Sure enough, it was Lizzy Hawker, someone who I have admired from afar for years (in a very ultra nerdy kind of way). I immediately knew that something was wrong – Lizzy is not someone who you just ‘catch up to’ on the trail. Ever. Lizzy has been overcoming a number of injuries and unfortunately her body just wasn’t going to let her do the HK100 that day.  I did what any geeky starstruck runner would do at that moment, and gushed about how amazing I thought she was (I may have used the word ‘hero’, sigh) and gave her a giant, sweaty hug, like some crazy groupie. Yes, I admit, I may have crossed a creepy line, but I couldn’t help myself. The woman is amazing and I wanted her to know that.

HK100.2I reached Check Point 5 (52 km) around 6 hrs 30 min, where my dear friend Emily was waiting (she unfortunately had had to pull out around 40 km due to a nasty chest cough). As soon as Emily saw me, she outstretched her arms and blurted out a series of expletives, which I believe went something like, Steph!! What. The. F&*K?! Confused by the somewhat less than friendly reaction, I asked her what was going on. Do you know you’re in fourth place?! she said, her face slowly changing from shock to excitement.  I shook my head giggling, and tried to wave it off.  Truth be told, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I just wanted to run as Agnes and the minute it wasn’t fun any more, I thought I would just quietly drop out. I wasn’t in the mood to ‘compete’ and figured I would just blow up at some point due to my lack of training.

I left the checkpoint in a bit of a daze and then immediately remembered I had forgotten to pick up my warm shirt from my drop bag, which I would need for the climb over Tai Mo Shan later that night. Crap! Luckily, Emily offered to swing around in a taxi and wait for me at Check Point 8 with my things, which turned out later to be a lifesaver for a different reason….

HK100

The second half of the race flew by. Sure, my left quad was burning and I had a tumble or two down some of Hong Kong’s typical awkwardly spaced steps, but generally  I was surprised at how good I felt. I liked being Agnes Cheng – a lot.  On parts of the course, it felt like I had stepped into the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and I was pleasantly distracted by all of the sights and sounds. Boy scouts volunteers perched themselves high up in the trees in places so that they could spot runners approaching and call out ahead to alert the checkpoints. As I ran underneath them waving and smiling, their excited chatter reminded me of talkative birds, chirping away amongst the tree branches. Monkeys littered the trail, greedily eyeing morsels of food clutched in the runners’ hands. Dense foliage obscured the path at points, creating deceiving false summits on particularly gruesome climbs…  It all seemed so magical to me. The trail, the volunteers, and the wildlife were all bursting with energy and somehow I felt that this buzz around me was transferring into my legs.

Photo by HKTR Vivien

Photo by HKTR Vivien

Photo by HKTR Vivien

Photo by HKTR Vivien

When nightfall came, I pulled out my trusty head torch to help light my way. To my utter dismay, after only about 20 or 30 minutes, my light started to dim and flicker in front of me, turning the trail into a confusing, hazy mess of rocks and roots. Damn it. I had just put in a new set of batteries, but they were obviously defective, which meant that my spare batteries would not be any help either. I took the light off my forehead and held it in my hand so that I could get it closer to the ground and at a better angle to cast shadows on any nasty obstacles. I just had to make it to Check Point 8 (83 km), where I knew Emily would be waiting with a spare torch.

I made it to Shing Mun Dam where Emily was waiting with a giant hug (and thankfully the head torch!) 11 hours into the race. I briefly quizzed her about what was coming next – all I heard was “hills, hills, hills” – and after shoving a few snickers bars into my mouth, I was off again. First it was a climb up Needle Hill at 532 m. Then Grassy Hill at 647 m. Finally, just 5 km from the finish, it was Tai Mo Shan at 957 m. I can’t say I can remember one hill from the other. I just put my head down, placed my hands on top of my quads, and powered through them.

On the 5 km road descent to the finish, it really started to dawn on me that I had done way, way better in the race than I had ever imagined was possible.  Despite my lack of training, it was as if my body just kicked back into gear again, completely un-phased by the unwanted vacation I had given it for the past few months. One thing I know for sure is that being physically strong makes me feel mentally strong, and with each step in that race I started to get the ol’ confident “me” back.  I may have been running with a bib that said “Agnes Cheng”, but more and more I was feeling like Stephanie Case again.

As I came up to the finish line, I became completely overwhelmed with gratitude: gratitude for the strength in my legs, the friends and family in my life, and the chance to feel really, really happy again. Nothing compares to that feeling. As they shouted out Agnes’ name when I crossed the line, I was completely overcome and I let salty tears trickle down my face and into the corners of my bursting smile.

HK100 finish 3 HK100 finish HK100 finish

In the end, I finished in third – third place!!! – and 47th overall with a time of 13 hours and 46 minutes. However, not surprisingly, I was disqualified for running under another name.  Once it had become clear that I was going to potentially earn a podium spot, Emily made sure to tell the race organizers before I crossed the line. Had I done so without them knowing I wasn’t really Agnes Cheng, it could have been a massive problem. Luckily, everything got sorted and the real third place woman was able to take her well-deserved place on the podium.

IMG_4242

With Lizzy Hawker, Jez Bragg, and a couple of FAST local HK runners at the HK100 drinks event the day after.

Some people have since asked me whether I was disappointed. Hell no!! Sure, I had a moment after finishing where I let myself think about the fact that I had just raced my heart out for a DQ… but honestly, it really didn’t matter to me one bit. I had the time of my life as Agnes Cheng, and who knows, maybe racing under someone else’s name was what actually propelled myself to the finish line faster than I had expected. I loved the race. I love to run. End of story.  All I need to figure out now is how to channel my inner ‘Cheng’ in the next race… as Stephanie Case!

Me with the 'real' Agnes Cheng on a run a few days after the race

Me with the ‘real’ Agnes Cheng on a run a few days after the race

There is a saying in this sport to ‘run with your heart, not with your feet’. The heart, like any other muscle, can get broken down… but the amazing thing is that when it recovers, it grows back stronger. I may not have been training my legs for this race, but my heart has certainly been getting a workout. And now I know it has come back stronger, beating with more intensity and passion than ever before.

Yes, I’m still unemployed, financially strained, and incredibly nomadic at the moment. The race hasn’t changed that… but it has certainly changed my perspective. Until that job comes along – and it will – I am going to be grateful for what I do have in my life. I have another couple of weeks here in Hong Kong to spend with friends, with a quickie trip to Australia for Chinese New Year, and then will be returning home for 5 days to prepare for my next big adventure, which is…

THE ICE ULTRA!!! 230 km over 4 days up in the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland (14-20 February). Check out the youtube video here. A friend of mine and I were able to get almost fully sponsored spots at the last minute, so long as we agreed to participate in a sports psychology study during the race (er, psych testing on ultrarunners? I know what the results are going to be!!).  It was a no brainer. I’ve always hated the cold, but I’ve been perversely curious about how I would fare in the Arctic, so no time like the present!!!

LIFE IS GOOD. And all signs are suggesting that 2014 is going to seriously, seriously rock. Stay tuned for more…

Finally, thanks to the organizers of the HK100, Steve and Janet, for running an amazing race and for forgiving me for my bandit running! (Yes, I sent an apology after the race for the inconvenience). Can’t wait to come back and run under my own name.

 

Goodbye 2013, Hello 2014!

December 31. For some of you, this evening will consist of sparkly dresses, champagne glasses and midnight dances. Others might be spending tonight with a select few or perhaps a loved one, happy to avoid the New Year’s hoopla in favour of good food and good wine. And I know that some of you crazy ones are out on the trails in Hong Kong or bringing in the New Year at the Emerald Nuts midnight run in Central Park, racing towards 2014 in true style.

Trying out the snowshoes!

Trying out the snowshoes!

As for me, I am spending today at my parents’ cottage in Canada, enjoying the quiet surrounds of wintery Canada, and reflecting on all of the events of the past year – the good, the bad, the incredible and the downright ugly.  In between hiking through the snow and skiing on the frozen lake, I have been pondering the three main questions that always pop into my head around this time of year: What did I learn over the past 12 months? What do I still need to figure out? And am I where I want to be?  If you’re into making New Year’s resolutions, don’t even bother to come up with one until you’ve tried to answer these questions first (in my humble opinion).

IMG_4113

Running with UltraRunnerDad!

Well, I’ve learned that wearing dresses over pants can be potentially fashionable outside of Muslim countries. I’ve learned where all of the power outlets are in Dubai airport’s Terminal 2, and where you can sleep while charging your phone. I’ve learned to see the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old Afghan girl and been ashamed by my own cynicism. I have learned how to recognize what is simply a #firstworldproblem and to give myself a break when it still seems like a big deal in my head.

DSCF0019

Drilling the ice to check if it is safe to ski on!

I’ve learned that forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves, rather than to the one who has hurt us.  I’ve also learned that it is a daily, ongoing act of kindness, rather than a single moment in time. I’ve learned how to cry in French and laugh while in despair. I learned for the first time what it means to love unconditionally, and felt the pain of being loved conditionally.  I’ve learned to shout out warnings in Czech, introduce myself in Russian, and swear in Italian. I’ve learned that when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them – the first time. I’ve learned that my self-worth cannot – or should not – be determined by the standards of another. I’ve learned that complicated does not mean interesting or exciting, and seeing the world in shades of grey can dull an otherwise colourful, fluorescent world.

I’ve learned that a good apology can be transformative, but a series of repeated apologies are usually meaningless.  I’ve learned that I can make it through a day, a week, maybe even a month without my beloved diet coke (going on three weeks now!).  But that giving up one vice is usually replaced by another. I’ve learned that my friends are far more amazing, generous and caring than I ever gave them credit for. I’ve learned what it feels like to have my eyelashes freeze IMG_4168on a -20 degree Celsius run. I have learned to subordinate my own desires and dreams for another – but haven’t yet figured out when it is okay to prioritize myself instead.  I’ve learned that good people can act badly and bad people can surprise you, but all that matters at the end of the day is the capacity to trust, respect and care for another.

I still need to learn how to stop apologizing for who I am and what I do. I need to learn how to give myself a break (never!!!) and try to relax, other than after a race. I need to figure out how to use #hashtags and what is tweetable vs non-tweetable. I need to learn how to let go more. And mostly, I need to learn how to weather the lows better and trust that a high is just around the corner.

I’ve got a lot to learn yet. And I’m not where I want to be. Last year at this time, I never would have thought that on December 31, 2013, I would be alone, unemployed, and struggling to find my path. I’ve never had more than a week or two without full-time work and it has now been almost three months since I’ve been actively looking…. Frustrating and humbling, but perhaps a good reminder never to take anything for granted. In some ways, I’m kicking myself for making myself so vulnerable – emotionally and financially – in my past relationship. Perhaps it was incredibly naïve, but hey, I was in love and saw only the best. I would rather get hurt a million times over by believing in a relationship I shouldn’t have, than constantly distrusting something that was real. It is a tradeoff, right? :)

2013 was filled with adventures and excitement, but unfortunately a lot of turmoil and pain. When I think of the highlights, I remember the kids I taught in Afghanistan, the lawyers I met in Liberia, the sunrises I saw during UTMB, and the friends I made in the fall. When I think of the lows, well, I turn my mind to 2014.  If I were to make New Year’s resolutions, it would be the same as last year – I would resolve to be true to myself, true to my passions, and kind to my loved ones… and I would resolve to keep pushing myself forward into the scary, overwhelming, and exciting unknown.

Who knows what 2014 holds, but I can only hope it will contain more adventures, endless miles, and a lot less turmoil? Bring it on.

And Happy New Year, to all 50,000 readers in 153 countries who visited this blog in the past year :)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,706 other followers