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I’ve failed to finish a few ultras – a couple through injury and a couple through stupidity but the thing that has cost me most is my ability, or rather lack thereof, to run in the heat and my ability to sweat like a national champion.

Even on the occasions where I have raced and run in the sun I’ve really struggled – the Folkestone 10km, Bedgebury 10km and the Vanguard Way Marathon. The latter is a prime example of how badly things can go, although I was running with water it was a boiling hot day and the organisers ran out of fluids of any sort at the half way point. At mile 16 I was pretty delusional and heat exhaustion had consumed me – in my own minds befuddlement i could tell I was in a dangerous situation but to my surprise I finished. In the aftermath I remember placing a McDonalds chocolate milkshake on either side of my head to cool myself. Yummy.

These were the experiences that I both survived and finished. However, there were races, mostly ultra marathons that occurred in the heat of the August sunshine where I simply had to give up.

My most memorable failure was probably the Ridgeway Challenge, which when I ran it, was held on a muggy late August afternoon and even before the event had begun I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had my head covered, fully sun creamed up, fully hydrated, fully lubricated and ready to go but within a few short miles I was already struggling.

When I was around 55 miles in I found myself stood atop a hill with my running tights around my ankles and attempting to stop the terrible burning that radiated around my nut sack. I put the family jewels inside a buff and I put tissues inside my Runderwear to stop any further rubbing of my red raw and sweating skin.

I soon crawled into a late night and windy checkpoint and stopped running – I could simply go no further.

This experience was not the only time an August ultra marathon has given me a kicking but after not racing during the summer months for the last couple of years I’ve decided that a move to Scotland may make the possiblity of completing an August ultra marathon a reality.

After completing the Ben Vorlich Ultra on Sunday in warm, but not sweltering, conditions I have begun to feel a little more confident about getting this hoodoo dealt with.

Therefore, I have decided to attend the inaugural Thieves Road Ultra from BaM Racing on August 10th as this seems like a decent opportunity. It will be 40 miles (ish) across the Pentlands and surrounds and will provide a strong test of distance and temperature and while I’m looking forward to it I also have to remember my failings at this time of year.

There are other things that I will be doing during the Thieves Road that I normally reserve for the continental ultras I have participated in and hopefully these little changes will have a big impact.

  • Using my baggier Raidlight shorts instead of my usual OMM Flash tights – this will hopefully pass greater breeze through the undercarriage to keep things cooler
  • A single pair of thinner Drymax socks rather than my preferred Injinji toe liner and Drymax trail sock. This will heopfully stop my feet overheating, which has been an issue that causes huge discomfort during events.
  • A lighter weight race vest with a lower load – I’ve been working down the weight of the contents of my race vest, looking to take only the kit required. The problem with being a middle to back of the pack runner is that there is often a need to have a little more kit. However, I’ve recently acquired the Raidlight Revolutiv 12 which I ran with for the first time at the Ben Vorlich Ultra and found that I was happy to run with a lower load and also found that I ddin’t sweat across my back as much with this race vest on.
  • A sahara style cap – I’m a big fan of a Buff visor but the cover it provides is not quite enough for the sweltering heat and retaining a cool head is key to finishing ultra distance races.
  • Reliable consumption of fluid – the new race vest has a minimum capacity of 1.5litres of fluid upfront and I during my latest adventure I found myself

These things combined with all my usual preparations will hopefully finally see me deliver an August medal. Fingers crossed and if anybody has any advice on how to deal with the heat, chaffing, heat stroke and  exhaustion, etc then I would be very happy to hear your tips.

I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?

I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).

Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.

Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear –  my number, tracker and  timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp  (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.

The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.

I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.

The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.

I digress.

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The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.

I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.

I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!

After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.

Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.

There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.

How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.

I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.

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The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.

I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.

Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.

 

Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.

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I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.

Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.

The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.

As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

Organisation
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.

Awards
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.

Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.

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Conclusion
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

I ran the up the field, urging a lady named Karen to give it a bit of welly and then leaped across the line myself and so I drew to a close the Whitley 10km.

As most who read this will be aware I am partial to an ultra marathon and so a 10km you might think would present no real challenge but let me assure you that a 10km, this 10km was a challenge. My ultra running is a slow and steady affair generally and a 10km offers the opportunity to instead run more quickly. It’s worth noting though that the day before the race I had driven down from Scotland to sunny Cheshire, something I can’t recommend before a race. There was also a miserable nights sleep on an uncomfortable bed at a hotel in Lymm to add into the mix and so when I arrived in the delightful town of Whitley I wasn’t in the best of moods. However, the day was clear and it was near perfect running conditions and thus my race day truly began.

I ambled up to the race HQ to find a mass of race vests that I remember from my youth growing up in the north west of England, there was also the broad range of accents that a Cheshire based race would attract, Mancunian, Scouse and other more local accents beat against my ears and I found this rather soothing as I collected my number. The race had a well organised and yet small feel to to it despite there being about three hundred runners milling around but I found myself keeping myself to myself – I enjoyed the anonymity of being somewhere that absolutely nobody recognised my face.

At about 10.45 runners were ushered to the start line and I moved to the back of the field expecting to run a very slow 10km. At the back of the field I was surrounded by lots of lovely runners, first timers, old timers, returners from injury and bimblers and when the race started I set off the watch and began.

The route was mainly through tree lined closed roads and was a reminder to me that the north of England is, in many places, very attractive and worthy of exploration. I was setting a reasonable pace and decided to use my energy in the first half and then use sheer willpower through the second half. I started to overtake people in kilometres one and two but then noticed that my legs felt heavy and so too did my breathing – I was about to have a very bad day. The next three kilometres felt like the hardest distance I had run in years and the long, never ending roads seemed to taunt me, I had long forgotten what stretches of tarmac like this felt like.

However, it wasn’t just the tarmac that was giving me concern, I had the problem of finding my Altra Escalante a little uncomfortable and causing me distress through my left foot. No matter what I did I couldn’t shake the pain I was in and I’ve come to the conclusion that my latest attempt to love Altra road shoes has ended in failure and I should instead stick with Topo Athletic for the road running.

Regardless of these minor issues I found myself enjoying the experience of racing the Whitley 10km and its rather scenic roads. Once beyond 7km I also started to relax into event and fInd my rhythm, slowly picking off runners who had jumped ahead of me and although the pain in my foot remained I was perfectly happy ambling along and as I passed the 9km point I knew that I could ramp up the pace and finish with a bit of a flourish. It was here that I met Karen and for most of the finally kilometre we egged each other to go that bit faster and as we approached the final stretch and a loop of an altogether unnecessarily hilly field I urged her to take me down with a sprint finish and we crossed the line roughly together.

Wonderful.

I picked up my medal (rather pleasant too) as I was ushered through the finishing area and had my timing chip removed and then I was free to head back to sunny Scotland – safe in the knowledge that fun had been achieved.

Conclusions

A well organised and executed 10km at a perfectly sensible price and a great warm up race for your spring marathon(s). The Whitley 10km was more than scenic enough and if you enjoy road racing along country lanes than this is just for you. The closed roads and wonderful volunteers coupled with a light, bright attitude just made this a great day out for runners, highly recommended.

As I ambled around the Vigo Tough Love 10 I spent my time contemplating just how I might start this blog post and I could find no appropriate way to say what I was feeling and so we are starting like this.

There’s never an easy way to say goodbye and Vigo almost had me in tears (at miles 1 through to 9 and of course at the end) but that’s more about the course than the emotional end that Vigo Runners provided.

However, let me roll back 450 miles and a day or so earlier to when I was hammering down the M6 to the south with thoughts of my final days in the Kentish sunshine and another ding dong with the mud of the Vigo Tough Love 10.

The last year has left me a tad overweight, incredibly unfit, brutally broken and with nothing left in the tank – so the thought of driving a 900 mile round trip, loading up a van full of the last vestiges of our life here AND running the greatest race ever conceived seemed to be a cruelty that I did not need to put my body through. However, the Vigo Tough Love 10 has provided years of joy to me and one last opportunity to run it seemed like the ideal sign off.

We rolled up to the familiar sight of the Vigo running club on Sunday morning not in the best of moods – sleeping on a child’s picnic mat for the previous evening, having to make a pre-race trip to the local tip and then smacking my head into a car door were not ideal preparation. However, I was greeted in the warmest possible way when the race organiser called out ‘ultraboy’. Somewhat surprised by the recognition I found myself having a lovely chat and suddenly the day felt warmer as I waxed lyrical about my love of the event and my sadness about this (probably) being my final visit.

Post chat I took my place in the queue for number collection and I was surrounded by familiar faces both well known and less so but all welcome sights and I could feel myself getting, as the GingaNinja puts it, ‘totsemosh’. The efficiency of number collection was brilliant by the way, the very minor problem of the previous year had been ironed out – so well done guys.

All I could do really was to take in my beautiful surroundings and the lovely weather but most importantly was the wonderful atmosphere that seems to have grown year on year.

I love small races and small fields – yet even as this race grows it retains all the joy and friendliness that I have associated with it since I first took to the start line in 2014.

Anyways 10.30am rolled around (yes a nice time in the morning for a race!) I ambled to the back of the pack and listened to the safety briefing and sponsor gubbins and this year the bang of the cannon was finally replaced by a sound not so cannon like! But we were off and I started to gently pick my way through the field of runners.

We ran the traditional route round the rugby pitch and even here I could feel my poor old feet and lungs burning – today, I could tell, was going to be a long day. I was very grateful when we came across the first of the log leaps and there was a short queue and here I came across a runner who last year I had met as he was limping bloodied and injured about halfway in – lovely to see him back and looking strong.

The brief stop prepared me for the lovely first stretch of mud and for my part I looked lovingly over the oozy mud. Sadly Kent must have had a patch of good weather as the route was very runnable and probably the most runnable I’d ever seen it. However, let me assure thrillseekers that despite the excellent conditions there was still plenty of filthy action to get you aroused!

It still amazes me though that some runners had chosen to run in road shoes, I (relatively sensibly) had opted for the Altra King MT and I had full confidence that they would handle pretty much anything.

And so it was.

While others picked there way through the sides of the mud I simply bounded through it like a puppy. I was a literal pig in muddy poo, oh how I could have simply lain in the muddiness!

My mood was improving dramatically with every step and I delighted in dancing through the trails and chatting to the runners – mostly me talking at people, mocking my own stupidity for attempting this with so much else going on. But the V10 is the kind of race where you do chat to fellow runners and you do share your trail running stories, it’s all part of that very friendly vibe that reverberates through every level of the event.

As the miles passed by I was reminded once again how Vigo feels so open and crammed in all at the same time – one second you’re in tight woodland and then suddenly you’re in great expanses of green and for miles and miles you feel like you’re in the trail maze. Uphills become downhills and vice versa – it’s an unending smorgasbord of beauty and brutality on your legs and your wits and it will catch you out if you fail to respect it.

It’s a brilliant route and I have lots of respect for the V10m.

But it wasn’t going to be my day in terms of good running so I hiked quickly the harder hills and gave it ‘the beans’ where I could. Vigo really was going to test my mental, emotional and physical endurance today.

The good news was that as the naughty thoughts of failure flickered across my mind my favourite downhill was upon me! The downhill sits around halfway through the race and I always feel you’re entering a tunnel of trees – here you see the cautious not wanting to risk anything but as an old hand I could turn the volume up to 11 and simply go.

And go I did.

More than usual I really hurtled down the trail and found myself coming over the log at the bottom with such enthusiasm that you’d have thought there was a 4 pack of cream eggs waiting for me!

Instead, at the bottom, was another of the brilliant marshalling team. I carried on through the open field and saw the climb up to the halfway hill of horror, weirdly behind me I could here the sound of runners – running! ‘Running?’ I hear you cry, ‘up a hill?’

I’ll be honest I knew that walking up this hill would save me for later in the race and both knees and feet would thank me for not running up the tarmac climb. But I was mightily impressed that many at the back of the pack where showing a lot more grit than I was!

Once clear of the summit I returned to running and cut gently through the swathes of delicious Kentish countryside while grabbing greedily at the proffered jelly babies (nice ones too – haribo rather than bassets I reckon). The only problem was that conditions were a little too warm for me and I’d already dispensed with my undershirt but the ground, due to the glorious conditions, was much tougher than anticipated and therefore my King MT in the final 5km were a little hard going and my Lone Peaks might have been a better on the day choice.

Still I bounced merrily along the final downhill and prepared for the long, slow slog up the final hill. Most might call this heartbreak hill or some other such valentines related nonsense but I simply refer to it as, ‘friend’. The final hill reminds me of the many good times I’ve endured clambering to the top, breathless with joy, exhaustion and excitement, it’s a fine climb and one that gives this race a special place in all our hearts.

As I slowly clambered upwards I laughed and joked with the other runners and recounted my history with the race and just how happily willing I was to travel from Scotland for this event.

Near the top of the hill there was a tremendous amount of encouragement for all the runners and as ever there was a marshall to give you that final shove if the hill had gotten the better of you.

At the top I shared a slurp of water with another runner and we both set off – having a little chat and bimbling our way to the finish. Then with less than a mile to go my toes curled in under my foot and the worst cramp I’ve ever experienced – I’ll admit I let out a series of howls and expletives. I tried running but there was nothing, I stopped to try and stretch but the magnificent pain just forced itself deeper into my foot.

Bloody hell I was so near – it cannot end like this.

I stood for a few moments and started to stretch my toes out but the little buggers were like claws and refused to open. Sod this I thought as a marshall approached and asked if I needed help – thanking him I said, ‘no’ and with one final effort I pushed the afterburner button and thrust myself forward into the trees. I knew I was going to make it but the question I had to ask myself was ‘how do you want to make it?’

The answer I concluded was with a roar.

In the distance I could see the two young cadets guarding the entrance to final run in and despite their warnings of the log I hurled myself over it – all prepared for one final blast down the runway to the finish line.

But then I stopped.

There was my family and the GingaNinja said to me, ‘she wants to run with you’.

Let my assure dear reader – this was going to be the perfect end to my Vigo journey. ASK grabbed my hand and told me, ‘we’re going to win dad’.

I’ll be honest I could have come last and I would have won today – this was brilliant and in the distance I could hear the call of the PA system cry out my variety of known names but on a race day, on a day like this, I’m definitely ultraboy!

ASK and I hammered those final couple of hundred metres home, I watched as she strode across the line and behind me and all around me I could hear the cheers of the remaining runners and the gentle congratulations of my daughter. Cuddles ensured and photographs taken and a medal was placed proudly round my daughters neck.

I may have run like the old man I’ve become but this remains the greatest race in the UK, my greatest race and what happened next is proof of that…

But we’ll get to that later.

Key Points

Distance: 10miles (10km option available)
Profile: a hilly calf destroyer
Date: Valentines weekend
Location: Vigo, Kent
Cost: £20
Terrain: Muddy and damn fine fun
Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: I’ve written several times about the route and I’ve waxed lyrical about the up and down nature of running around Vigo and this lovely part of Kent. I suppose the reason I really love this route is that in February it has everything, it’s wet and it’s dry, it’s hard and soft, you’ll come out of the event covered in mud, maybe even a bit bloodied if you get lucky and you’ll not have a single minute when you’re bored. This is a route that you’ll finish and immediately want to go back to again.

Organisation: I’m sure that 2018 will one day be remembered as ‘that year’ where there was a bit of a mix up with race numbers. However, having done this a five times now I can say that the organisation has always been first class and 2019 was no different – the team from Vigo Runners and Harvel Hash Harriers really do know how to organise a race and race number collection this year was better, faster and smoother than ever.

The marshalling points are all perfectly placed for directions and support, you always receive knowledgeable people guiding you and there’s a friendliness from all those involved in the organisation that makes this truly welcoming.

Support: The rugby club at Vigo which hosts the start line and provides the facilities pre-and post-race is a great way to ensure that there’s a good level of support to send the runners on their way plus the club itself shows its ongoing community spirit by allowing a load of stinky trail runners in through its doors! The indoor facilities such as the toilets, food options and changing rooms (and ample toilet roll) make this a comfortable wait for the runners, there no standing round in the cold – it’s simply catering well to a runners pre-race needs!

As mentioned the marshalling team are all top notch and you can’t fault them and you can’t praise them enough.

Value for Money: Value for money is always a difficult thing to measure but with Vigo you are getting both an awesome experience as well a mars bar, some love hearts and a really decent medal. Thrown in some really excellent support, a couple of water stations and a route to die for and you get brilliant value in your race.

Social Media / Communication: I’ve started looking at the way races communicate with it’s runners and how it advertises them (and I admit some bias here as my previous blog posts about the event get recommended to be read in their comms sometimes). Vigo Runners get the balance snooty right between too much and too little but I’d love to see more video content, more interaction throughout the year to help further build this ‘must-do’ race. The good news is though is that they don’t do it all through Facebook – they still do email race instructions and this I feel is a positive as not everyone likes or has social media. So basically I hope they keep doing exactly what they’re doing and will continue to build up this aspect of the race advertising.

Post Race Mentions: After I crossed the finish line there was a blur – lots of congratulations (despite this being my slowest ever Vigo), there was me congratulating other runners and there was ASK disappearing from my sight as I had my tuning chip removed and crying as she couldn’t find the GingaNinja.

I was starting to head out when a runner (the name eludes me but then it’s been a mad weekend) spoke to me and we briefly got chatting about her taking on the awesome upcoming Green Man Ultra. Weirdly we also had a selfie moment which was surprisingly odd – as it felt a little too much like celebrity – especially when it was followed by the race organisers coming over and saying, ‘we’ve been calling your name for ages’. I limped over to the starting area and there was the Vigo & Harvel top brass with a trophy and a HAGGIS! To say thank you for the support I’ve shown over my years running with them.

Now firstly, I love Haggis, secondly I love this race and thirdly – thank you so very much for this. I really don’t write the blog for reward, I write it because I want people to go to races that I’ve really enjoyed. And I’ve consistently said this is my favourite race and if this is to be my final time at Vigo then I’ll both be very sad and very grateful for the opportunity of running it and writing about it.

Conclusion: My apologies for this intentionally gushy and rather emotional post about the Vigo Tough Love 10 Mile. In 2019 I loved it as much as I loved it when it was all new in 2014 – it’s an event and a race that will bring you joy and if you are local or from further afield you should make the effort to join in – you will never be disappointed by running the Vigo 10. And while I say this will be my last time, my fifth time will never feel like enough and who knows – maybe next year I’ll discreetly turn up and run a decent time. We shall see. However, if I leave a Vigo legacy it this – I hope that some of you will be inspired to sign-up because you wanted a bit of the joy I felt when my feet slurped through that mud.

Thank you to everyone involved and keep doing what you’re doing. Brilliant event.

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Sunday was a weird kind of day, I should have been completing The Fellsman in Yorkshire but an injury meant that I had withdrawn a few weeks ago as Yorkshire from Kent is a long way to travel for a DNF. However, I didn’t fancy not doing any racing this weekend and so with a bit of a look through the listings I found ‘The Chicken Run’ at Herne Bay on the Kent coastline. A 5km race isn’t a distance I do very often anymore but today was a reminder that this is a distance that I love.

Anyway let me roll back a little and to about 8.30am when I get into the drivers seat of the Big car for the first time and started the terrifying near hour journey to the coast. The weather was grey and overcast and my newly minted bad mood was as grey as the sky given my new found mental strength to bad food. However, unlike the weather my bad mood abated and we parked up half a mile from the start line at Herne Bay pier. I always get a lovely sensation when I arrive at any British seaside town, presumably derived from my university time in Blackpool and so with a spring in my step I bimbled onto the pier with ASKruns and the GingaNinja.

There was a small queue of runners who had arrived before me to face the whipping winds of Herne Bay pier and who, once they had registered, hid behind a nice big wind breaker near the California food stall! The team of volunteers from the Strode Park Foundation were doing a top notch job getting everyone geared up with the obligatory costume and keeping everyone’s spirits up with cheer despite the slightly soggy conditions.

I did as all other runners did and hid behind the wind break and put my costume over my usual 5km kit of t-shirt and shorts. It was a little while later that all the runners were called over for the ‘photo opportunity’ – this involved sitting astride the merry-go-round and getting to know some of the other runners. It was a really nice way to set things off. This was followed by a bit of a chicken roast from the guys at Bay Running as they got us warmed up for the run.

All this was taking place for my daughter to see who, during races, traditionally sees me nervous and a little stressed. Today though she was seeing me dressed like a chicken, flapping my wings and generally having fun.

We were taken to the beginning of the race at the start of the pier, I took up my customary position near the back of the field and with a crack we were off! Dozens of flapping and running chickens headed off along the coast. Despite the weather being grey the rain was mostly light and it was near perfect conditions for running. Yes there was a wind that was making progress harder than it might have been but the sight of so many lovely fowl based runners was quite the inspiration.

There was a problem though about a kilometre in and that was I found myself at the front of the race. Now some may say this is a lovely thing but for someone who hasn’t led a race for a long time this was quite confusing and as I passed the army of volunteers and supporters who were lining the course I felt compelled to say, ‘help, I don’t normally go this fast’.

Thankfully at about 1.5km I took a wrong turn and Lucy who had been acting as my shadow called out that I needed to follow the coastal path.

Runners were now catching up too but I put this out of my mind and pressed Lucy as hard as I could until I was keeping pace with her. We reached the turnaround point together and both put a spurt on and as we were together we began chatting a little more. We reached the one significant climb in the race and I put all my mountain running experience to good use and pushed on.

My companion started to lag a little and so I called out to her that she could easily take me if she pushed a little harder – and she did push and pushed really well – which in turn gave me the incentive to keep going outside my comfort zone!

Behind us the other runners were not that far and with the pier now in sight I could see a top three finish being possible!

Normally my more selfless self would come out and I’d have helped her keep pace to the end but the selfish side of me wanted to hear the winning roar of the crowd and for my daughter to witness me coming home first. I pushed the afterburner button and my legs found that final sprint, probably 400metres from the end and I was determined to make sure I would hit the pier first.

I took a sneaky look over my shoulder and saw the two male runners creeping up on second place but I was clear enough that I could shout to ASK who cheered me home.

My chest was pounding and on fire but I hurtled through the ribbon to my first win over any distance for 4 years!

Conclusions: it might not have been The Fellsman but this lovely inaugural event was really, really well organised, it was a whole load of fun and really good value (chicken suit, medal, lots of support, water on the course and of course some post race chocolate egg – chicken and the egg… get it). The volunteers (I’ll assume from the Strode Park Foundation) were superb and must be both thanked and congratulated in equal measure. The course was really quite testing – with a decent incline on the way out and a nice steep incline on the way back with as fast a finish as you could ever want. The costume element of the race was a bit of fun but most welcome if I’m honest. I would highly recommend joining this lovely 5km by the sea – even if it’s blowing a gale! Brilliant.

Check out the Strode Park Foundation here and their charitable aims and I’m sure the Chicken Run 2019 will be available for entry later in the year!

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‘I’m not a people person, it’s fair to say I mostly don’t like people – which I guess is why I’m here and not on the South Downs Way 50 today – I wanted a race where I can be mainly unknown and anonymous’. A comment I made to one of the runners at the wonderfully fun Testway Ultra this weekend – a race I’m very glad I attended, despite the state I find myself in now.

Let’s roll back to about 5.57am the morning of the race as I jumped behind the wheel of ‘Spusum’ my little Aygo with ASKruns and the GingaNinja in tow. As we thundered out of Kent I remember saying to myself that ‘I mustn’t let the trauma of driving force my shoulders up around my ears’ but that didn’t happen, I recall saying to myself ‘lucky that my cold had cleared up for the race today’ it hadn’t and at the first gear change as I felt my hamstring a bit I remembered how destroyed the Silkin Way has left me. Let’s say that I had a few concerns about my appearance at the Testway Ultra.

However, with the Fellsman a mere three weeks away, the West Highland Way Challenge only seven weeks away and the Arran ultra only ten weeks away I felt I needed to take the risk of running a reasonable distance event that had a decent element of toughness.

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

On paper (or rather GPX) this doesn’t look tough at all, there’s more than enough trail (although a couple of significant tarmac sections), the elevation profile suggested that although not flat there were no hideous climbs, conditions were a bit muddy but nothing that any trail marathon or ultra runner wouldn’t have seen before and so you’d go into this thinking that it was a pleasant 44 mile trot.

Ha! The Testway Ultra has a few surprises up its sleeves though to ensure that you were getting good value for money and in short, I can happily report that this was awesomely good fun.

When I arrived at the start I grabbed my number and then went and hid on the back seat of the car away from the rain, dipping out only when the toilet queue had subsided enough to squeeze out a pre race number one, but sadly not a number two (a problem that would come back to bite about 15 miles later in the race). The start was well organised, very efficient and all the runners were slowly marshalled to the start line at the top of the hill on time and in good order. Here I met the amazing runner @TonySharkey who I’ve known a bit through Twitter and I find it’s always lovely to meet the people who you look at with great admiration. He was clearly going to hammer out a time that would make me look like I wasn’t moving but we chatted for a few minutes and when the start came we wished each other well.

For the record he did hammer out a fantastic a time!

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As for me I set off at an unusually swift pace and given that my training has taken something of a nosedive of late this seemed an odd choice. However, the beautiful setting and the rolling vistas ahead of me ensured I was in good spirits as I bimbled my way through the miles. The weather was being cool but dry or as I would like to say, the weather was being kind and the route was very runnable. This was a far cry from the tarmac trails of two weeks ago, my hamstring and groin were in seventh heaven…

Well for the first miles…

I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a self destruct button somewhere as about five miles in I felt all the angst of pain running through my back simply explode. There wasn’t an ‘ache, ache, ache, bang’ – no there was just ‘bang’. I looked around at my surroundings and pressed heavily into the area where there was pain – it was tender, it was sore and the resting on my back of my last comfortable race vest was causing shooting pains of agony. Bugger.

I looked down at my watch and saw that the number of kilometres run was a mere 8.56 – some way short of the required 70(ish)km. I slowed for a while to gather my thoughts… injury, Fellsman, West Highland Way, another DNF, pain, early into the race…

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I decided that I had to at least checkpoint 1, if nothing else rescue would require longer than it would take to hobble to a limp CP1 finish. I did however promise myself that if I arrived into the checkpoint in good time then I would push on through to CP2.

Of course, I ended up arriving into the first stop in good time and after two cups of cola I headed out quickly (basically before I convinced myself to DNF) and issuing a million thanks to the volunteers and supporters. The issue here was that the first checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles away from the start, it was about 9 miles and second checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles either this was at least a couple extra and this resulted in a problem.

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Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 was where it started to heat up, temperature wise and trouble wise. The cold I’d been recovering from added fuel to my already injury laden self. I was taking on lots of fluid but I soon realised that my 600ml wasn’t going to be sufficient and began rationing myself. Thankfully I had the lovely course to encourage myself with and a lovely runner called Dave, who would be my sometime companion over the next few miles but with my back in pieces, water running low I did wonder what the hell else could go wrong! It seems that in my head somebody was listening and decided that, about 15 miles in, that I needed a loo stop but with no really discreet place to go I decided to amble ever forwards – a decision I would regret long into the night as my efforts in the Vaseline department had been left rather wanting and lets put it like this the rusty bullet hole seemed more like a fresh shooting had happened in the chaffing department.

However, all this said my spirits were surprisingly good and this was mainly because I knew that I would reach checkpoint 2 long after it was sensible to continue – sadly I didn’t. I was well within the time I had allocated to myself and as I arrived at checkpoint 2 I felt a pang of, ‘oh god I’ve still got another marathon to go’. The great thing was that the company I’d been keeping to this point had been lovely and the ace guys and gals at the checkpoint were amazing – listening to my endless list of aches of pains as I munched my way through their jelly beans and cola.

Still the weather was fine, I had survived my water shortage and it seemed rather silly to drop out now. For a little while I picked up the pace again to see if a different stride pattern might help alleviate the stress on my back (it didn’t) and I bimbled my way past another lovely volunteer (all of whom I tried to have a little joke or three with as they clapped and cheered me on). I strode purposefully up the hill where I found another lovely volunteer giving me directions down towards a river section, ‘6 miles of flat canal like running’ he promised. I’m sure he meant this as a kindness but to me the flat would be a killer and as I stomped off down the hill I began a slow and steady trudge towards the third checkpoint.

I decided that as time was on my side and I wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for my pace I’d slow down for this section and save my legs for what I suspected would be a more difficult back end.

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This turned out to be the first really good decision I had made and I strode purposefully through the route with bits of running thrown in for good measure and though there had been a few miles of running by a river and busy roads the route remained mostly reasonably interesting and there were enough passers-by offering thumbs up to feel like a nice atmosphere on what was fast becoming my sweaty evening stroll.

Soon though I drifted into the third checkpoint, the bad news was that cola was in short supply and but I had thankfully arrived before the glut of runners behind me (sorry guys it was me who finished the cola off). It was here that I met the runner who defined the remainder of my race and helped ensure that I finished my latest foray into the ultra marathon world. However, first let me mention the lovely Louise (a lady I had met at the start of the event) and we crossed paths again when she caught me up at around mile 30, we found ourselves running together for a little while and chewing the fat over the ridiculousness of our race schedules and the silly things we often find ourselves doing. However, somewhere along the line I lost Louise as I had also been chatting with Kain and Francesca (I did check the spelling of the names of both of my fellow runners!) the other two runners who I’d fallen in with.

As I said earlier at the third checkpoint I’d met the runner who would pretty much define my race and this was the very wonderful Francesca. A lady with a quick wit, a cheery and chatty personality and a desire to finish. It seemed we were both travelling at roughly the same speed and so found ourselves developing a groove through the tough final stages. Our chatter and laughter pushed us through the worst of the mud and the water and whenever things would get a bit tough we’d throw out a bit of a funny line or words of encouragement. I’ve been Francesca – new to the ultra world but keen and determined to finish, she reminded me a little bit of Elaine, that I ran the latter stages of the Green Man Ultra (read about that here) with and that race and that partnership had been a real favourite of mine. This experience wold turn out to be just as rewarding, hopefully for both of us, I can certainly say that having the support of a fellow runner and somebody to take my mind off the hideous pain my back was in gave me all the drive I needed to push on. It’s fair to say that my running improved alongside Francesca and I found myself willing to push on that little bit faster whenever we were able. It is also true that the latter stages of the race though were my favourite as I love nothing more than sloshing about in the mud and the crap, picking my way through the route and bouncing through the worst of the mud, sending it cascading up and down my legs!

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As the miles came crashing down we once again felt that the accuracy of the checkpoint locations wasn’t quite as up to scratch as the rest of the race! We rolled into the final checkpoint with Suunto reading as less than 3km to the finish but with the volunteers reporting that there were 3 miles remaining – the truth is that it was somewhere in between, but when you’re tired and sore all you want is some assurance that you need to go no further than is absolutely necessary. Once more at the checkpoint I played the roll of flirty jester, offering a nod and wink to the lovely volunteer with the wonderful beard and twinkled my smile at the lady I’d joked earlier could have taken my place in the race – there should always be time for a bit of fun with the volunteers.

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Anyway, we set off for home, the knowledge that we would make it before dark was also handy as one of us was short of a headtorch and I was concerned how we might fare if we lost the light before the end of the race. Thankfully we ran across the wooden path over the marshland in excellent time and took a few seconds as we re-entered civilisation to ensure we were going the right way. A gentleman began walking towards us, very nicely dressed I noted and gave s a hearty thumbs up and welcome, ‘300m and you’re there’ – I could have kissed him, instead I simply hugged him.

As we headed off I recounted the tale of Jimmy McKenna, the only person that ever served as running coach to me (I was a mere 7 years old) and one lesson has always stuck with me, ‘it doesn’t matter how you’ve run, always finish strong’ and so with uncharacteristic ease I slipped into full throttle mode with Francesca and we hurtled towards the finish and ensured that we crossed the line together.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Profile: Deceptively challenging
  • Date: April 2018
  • Location: Coombe Gibbet
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail (and a some tarmac)
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route: The route was really lovely in places with nothing unpleasant (well except for a flat six miles in the middle but I think most people would enjoy this as a respite for the undulation). The views in parts were beautiful and the trail was mixed up enough that it never felt like it was going to get dull. The excellent thing about the route was that the good parts were spread throughout the route and the less interesting parts were equally spread. Sometimes a race can have all of its excitement in a very confined space but the route of the Testway is fun and varied. It is also much tougher than the GPX file suggests and I saw many a tough race shirt on the start line (Dragons Back, Centurion and MdS finishers) so go into this expecting a fun and rewarding day at the office.

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Organisation: Organisation can be a tough one to get right, especially on a point to point when you have to ferry runners to the start early in the morning but Andover Trail Runners showed real skill in handling the event and the runners. Number collection was easy and the on the course volunteers who manned all the major road crossings were awesome. The provided GPX file was a welcome addition to the race pack and the on course markings were pretty good mostly (although it was noted that towards the end there were significantly less of them to aid direction – though signs do get removed by scallywags periodically).

Support: The team at the start, the finish and on the course was excellent, thank you to all of you. The volunteers were amazing and the support crews were in fine cheer for all the runners not just their own. The checkpoints were pretty good with a decent selection of savoury and sweet items, the only minor downside was the running our of cola, but I’m sure this will be rectified for the next running. The only other comment I would add is that it might be worthwhile considering adding water stop(s) to some of the road crossings – on a hotter day 10+ miles between checkpoints can be a long distance to go if you’ve run low on water and the road crossing guys were perfectly positioned as a spare water stop – just a thought.

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Awards: Lovely medal, some awesome photographs and a great day. What more do you need?

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

Mentions: I’m not normally one for special mentions however thanks to Tony, Dave, Louise, Rachael, Louise and especially Francesca who made the Testway Ultra a really fun event for me. Oh and thanks to Sam Arnold (and the other wonderful photographer whose name eludes me) who was taking photographs of the runners and captured me doing my, ‘staring into the middle distance’, ‘moulding of a fool’, ‘Hamlet cigars advert’ and ‘Heavy Landing’.

 

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Conclusion: I’d run this again, I’d want to train a bit better for it but the whole experience left me with a generally positive feeling, the distance wasn’t so far for it be a main spring ultra marathon but it would serve as a truly great warm up for a 75 or a 100. It wold also be a great step up for trail marathon runners who fancy a nice big meaty step up. The guys at Andover Trail Runners deserve a lot of credit for putting on an event that gave so much joy and I hope it runs for many years to come. Check out Andover Trail Runners at their website

Now the big question is will my back and other issues recover enough in time for The Fellsman and the West Highland Way Challenge? Well that remains to be seen – until next time, adios and have fun running!

Gallery: Now available at ultraboygallery.wordpress.com, my photographs (and those from the race photographers) from the event.

About a decade ago I fell in love with a chap, he was a bit of wimp, cuddly, cute, always ready for adventure and loved having his tummy tickled. His four big fat paws, oversized tongue, bandy legs and big unruly top knot made him something of a character to look at but to me he was the most beautiful, most amazing boy I’d ever met.

His name is Thai – you might have seen him mentioned in my previous posts as ThunderPad or Mr Awesome or Naughty Thai – and now, much, much too soon he has died.

I remember the first time I met Thai in person, it was when I visited the GingaNinja in Cornwall where he lived – he was all puppy like – because he was a puppy, he was naughty but only in the way that youthful exuberance makes you naughty and he had personality – the kind that reminded you of the best in people. I’d never been a dad to anyone but I soon became his daddy and we ran endlessly around the Cornish town of Bude in long beachy strolls and jumping in the sea together. It was a heavenly beginning and it never stopped being that way.

Our decade together seems too short, he epitomised my belief that life was there for living and Thai lived it with all four of his oversized paws on the pedal!

His adventures and his misadventures were many and varied and there are too many to write about here but he travelled with us to Cambodia, landing in Thailand during the middle of a civil war gun battle at Bangkok Airport – but he took this in his stride, doing nothing more than having a giant poo in the car park before we high tailed it out of there. He survived the cruddy six months in quarantine (coming out looking like a fat tub of lard). He was a mini wizard at agility and completed half marathons with me as his slo-mo companion (and of course there were numerous muddy training miles). Perhaps his greatest achievement in life though was giving heart back to this grumpy middle aged man because in Thai there was no malice, no anger and his love and compassion for the humans he cared for was immense.

My home feels very empty this morning, it misses his wandering about, his giant head, his thundering pads and oversized tongue bobbling about the house announcing his arrival long before you’ve seen him. It’s not just the house that feels empty though – I do too. He was the biggest and the best friend I’ll ever have and the little sod has had me crying near non-stop for the last week.

As he died I held him around his middle, feeling the final beats of his heart and the final breathes of his lungs, it was the most peaceful of endings for a hound of such energy and when he passed away at 8.06pm, 5th February 2018 I said good journey to the best of all puppies.

Thai you will never, ever be forgotten. See you around, my best Spuddy.

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