A couple of years ago I was taking part in a mountain marathon in Leadville, Colorado and my race wasn’t going to plan at all.
The first part of the race involved a steep ascent of 13,186ft (4,019m) Mosquito pass, the highest in the United States.
The problem was my partner Marsha.
She wanted to turn back and no amount of sweet words, encouragement – or carrots could get her ass up. At this point I should probably explain that Marsha was a donkey, and this was Leadville’s lesser known marathon, the Leadville Burro Race, a 21 mile mountain run around the area’s gold mining heartland, where the aim is to run with a donkey in tow.
In my book, a good adventure is one where you don’t know whether you should laugh or cry - and this one certainly ticked that box. I seek out races that demand not just physiological endurance but also a healthy sense of humour. I’ve needed one. I’m very fortunate that my work as an adventure and travel journalist has taken me to some unusual places and uniquely challenging experiences over the years.
While working for Red Bull a few years ago, my brief was to film myself taking on some of the world’s lesser known challenges. Besides the donkey marathon, there was Red Bull Alpitude, a mountain orienteering race in Switzerland, where one of the checkpoints was a guy running around in a bear costume, and the ‘uphill swimming race’ that is Red Bull Neptune Steps, a swim and obstacle course in a Glaswegian canal that was just 7ºC. It was flipping freezing and I believe it was even colder when Andy and Jonny did it last year!
My last race for them was the River Rat race in Stockton before it was discontinued, a 10k obstacle race whose signature challenge was ‘walking the plank’ off the replica ship HM Bark Endeavour.
I’ve always been a fan of Rat Race events since their early days, when their two-day city events were serious tests of physical and mental endurance. My team even came second in a couple of outings. Challenges included navigating sections with a satellite or nineteenth century map, abseiling off Twickenham stadium, paddling rivers and er… doing a pole dance in a lap-dancing night club. And the distances were not to be sniffed at, typically a 20km run and 50km on the mountain bike.
For the Financial Times’s ‘Desk till Dawn’ column, I regularly seek out off-beat adventures that can be done in a weekend, from diving between tectonic plates in Iceland, hiking Sicily’s Mt Etna to learning to paraglide in Cape Town.
But the best moments have always come from races I’ve entered just for fun, where writing about them has just been a bonus.
One of the most memorable was the Three Peaks Yacht Race. It’s a sailing race up the west coast of the UK from Barmouth, Wales to Fort William, Scotland via stops in Caernarfon and Whitehaven to run up the highest mountains of England, Wales and Scotland. With 72 miles of running, 18 miles of cycling and 3,400m of elevation, it’s a respectable challenge by itself, but this is mountain running with sea sickness and wobbly sea legs.
And the sailing adds a whole new level of adventure. In my year, we went backwards in the furious currents of the Menai Straits – we had to row to stay stationary – later running aground in low tide. We sailed into Whitehaven in a Force 9 storm (without electrics or an engine) and hit rocks off the west coast of Scotland. And came second overall.
I do enjoy amphibious events. In recent years Swimrun races have exploded in popularity off the back of the original ÖTILLÖ race. Many of you will be familiar with the Swimrun World Series as PH are their hydration partner and Andy, Sean and Jonny have raced (and written about) a number of their events. But for those who are not, the original race (and nowadays the World Championships race) is a 75km race across 24 islands in Sweden, with 65km on foot and 10km in the water.
They’ve since branched out with races in Cannes, Croatia, Switzerland and the UK’s Isles of Scilly, which offer a perfect 37.2km race course with 29km on land and 8.3km in almost tropical-like sea (yes, really).
Swimrun is not like triathlon where each discipline is a separate entity. The lines are blurred – you run in your wetsuit, you swim in your trainers. It’s also a team event. I took part with my girlfriend Sarah, a great swimmer who has a couple of IRONMANs under her belt.
Because there are no rigid rules on what you wear (hand paddles are permitted, for example) there are strategic decisions to be made on how to race. We wore a simple belt around the waist (a climbing sling with a knot in it) onto which we connected a line of bungee chord between us. As the stronger swimmer, Sarah towed me in the water; as the stronger runner I towed her on land. Racing with your partner is always risky - on a previous outing at the OMM we had a furious row right at the start - but get it right and it’s a wonderful experience.
But my first love are the mountains; climbing, trail running and more recently skiing.
Living in Austria for six years meant free rein to get into ski touring. My love of a race inevitably meant getting into the uniquely niche winter sport of ski-mo – ski mountaineering racing.
It’s the sport a lot of European trail runners switch to in winter (among them Kilian Jornet) and offers a unique blend of suffering, masochism and madness. It’s basically fell running on very light skis. You run up a mountain, rip your skins off at the top (those strips of carpet that give you grip on the ascent), click your heels down and then charge as fast as courage allows back down the mountain, while your quads silently scream in agony.
Physiologically, it’s hard to think of a more demanding endurance sport. To get an idea of the muscle groups used, perform 100 weighted lunges and then immediately try holding a three-minute static wall squat. Add altitude, snow and some cowbells and you’re almost there.
On one of my first outings I had a complete mare – my skins kept coming off, I’d totally overestimated my fitness, I thought it was over when I still had another lap to do.
When I eventually approached the finish line (in last place) the commentator kicked into life: “Ah, and here ist TarkVin Cooper from Great Britain, vair zay learn to ski on carpets.” I passed under the finish arch, just as the organisers took it down. It wasn’t the only thing that was deflated.
But what was it Winston Churchill said about going from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm?
Undeterred I signed up to the famous Patrouille de Glacier ski marathon in 2016, a 53km race from Zermatt to Verbier across the high mountains of the Alps, with almost 4,000m of ascent. It was epic, beginning with a 2,000m night ascent in the shadow of the Matterhorn under a brilliant star-lit sky.
Almost 16 hours later, we arrived to cheering crowds and were promptly mobbed by photographers. I lapped it up, this time feeling every inch the conquering hero, but in hindsight I think they were more interested in my team-mate Pippa Middleton...
So, what’s next?
Having ticked off an 85 mile ultra last December with the Oman by UTMB – the longest distance I’m yet to run – I suppose there’s only way that’s going to go, but I’m in no rush. Doing a really big challenge (especially one where the soles of your feet peel off) has the effect of curing me of wanting to repeat the experience – for a while at least.
There’s a reason I’d make a terrible triathlete. I’m simply incapable of organising my life to the degree that’s required to map out a training and race programme for the year ahead. Frankly I’m in awe of how the top age group athletes like Ruth Purbrook manage to do it.
But I also enjoy the spontaneity of signing up to an adventure with just weeks go to.
There’s nothing like last minute chaos to make life more exciting.
That means keeping the engine ticking over in a constant state of readiness. It means taking nutrition and hydration extremely seriously (and not just on race day), knowing how important they are.
And as I enter my prime as an athlete – I’m 44 this year, the best is always to come – it means spending a lot of my free time with my yoga mat, foam roller and pilates balls.
Whatever comes next, it promises to be an adventure. In some upcoming PH blogs I look forward to sharing some of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way. In the meantime, here's a recap of some of my favourite races and adventures to add to your bucket list...
1) Red Bull Neptune Steps
What: 400m swim in a freezing Glaswegian canal with ropes and nets to scramble up and over seven lochs.
When: 29 March
Top tip: Try not to swallow any water
2) Any Ski Mountaineering race
What: Fell running on skis – exhausting uphills, crazy downhills. A lot of fun.
Top tip: Being a competent skier is a must – as well an extremely high level of fitness.
Sign up: Races are generally organised by country so Google ‘skimo races’ in the area you’re interested in. There’s a British Ski Mountaineering Racing group on Facebook.
3) Oman by UTMB
What: 137km ultra marathon around the desert canyons of Oman. This year will see the full 100 mile course added, as well as shorter distances.
When: December 2019
Top tip: These are not flowy trails – prepare for technical rock scrambling.
Sign up: https://omanbyutmb.com/
4) Three Peaks Yacht Race
What: Sailing and mountain running race up the west coast of the UK
When: June 2019
Top tip: Sea sickness tablets
Sign up: www.threepeaksyachtrace.co.uk
5) ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly
What: Swimrun race across islands famous for their almost tropical waters and white sandy beaches.
When: June 8-9
Top tip: Wearing a specific swim-run wetsuit (with a zip down the front) is really important. Oh, and you can drink your fill of PH at the Energy Stations ;-)